Had Hayley Clark been the player in the Lord Chamberlain's company circa 1594, when Shakespeare was writing his first great romantic tragedy — and had she first illuminated the play's leading female — then this tale of feuding families and star-crossed love might have come to us as Juliet & Romeo, not the reverse.
Clark's performance in the season opener for Cincinnati Shakespeare Company (CSC) is luminous, magnetic and richly nuanced. In turn she reveals all the Juliets that Shakespeare wrote, each emerging from the last: first a giggling, moon-dazzled teen; next a love-slammed girl-woman, well aware that love and lust alight in her at the sight of Romeo; next the woman turned stern and crafty by looming catastrophe, the woman who defies father, family and tradition; and then, inexorably, the fate-cornered heroine confronted with a single exit strategy. It's as fulfilled and enthralling a performance as the CSC stage has yet hosted.
Which is not to say that CSC's production is a one-wonder show. Indeed, other wonders abound, as do some curious failures in unexpected quarters. Diminutive Sara Clark is cross-cast as Romeo's confidante Benvolio. What a grand and gleeful time she has as a boy-man — brawling, swearing, indulging in post-adolescent horseplay, playing with knives and strutting the bulging codpiece supplied as part of costumer Heidi Jo Schiemer's gorgeous Italian renaissance wardrobe. CSC frequently cross-casts, but rarely as successfully as this.
And what a pleasant little irony Hayley Clark's success makes.
In Shakespeare's company, a boy played Juliet — and probably did it well, since the Chamberlain players were London's premiere company — but no better, I'll warrant, than does Clark.
Against tradition, Giles Davies makes a terse, intelligent, energized, complicit activist of Friar Lawrence rather than a doddering do-gooder. He is friend, counselor, confessor and accomplice to the lovers — marrying them and then supplying the plot and the sleeping potion which should unite them for life but inadvertently seals them in death.
Guest artist Sherman Fracher likewise brings a new dimension to Juliet's Nurse. Often she is played as a paragon of wisdom and soft, doting maternalism as she facilitates Juliet's hasty marriage. Then the characterization crashes when she turns her apron and urges Juliet toward a bigamous marriage with Paris.
Fracher avoids this pitfall. Her Nurse is loving enough but a bit of a harridan, toothless, none too swift and given to seizing the moment. When she urges Juliet toward Paris, it plays as an in-character grab at a main chance.
These departures from ordinary interpretation underscore why Shakespeare's plays are forever fresh. When skilled actors such as those named above — along with Justin McCombs in the tiny but pivotal role of blood-lusting Tybalt and Kate Wilford as Juliet's mother — apply talent and intelligence, they find new depths and new directions.
The production's two significant stumbles I credit to visiting director Rick St. Peter of Lexington's Actors Express, who has mounted an otherwise swift, clarified show with excellent sound support (Matt Johnson) on an elegantly understated set by Will Turbyne.
Both stumbling actors are endlessly capable players with strings of CSC successes in their bios. They could readily have been guided into different performances.
Jeremy Dubin makes Mercutio a glib, bullying lout, offering nary a hint of the sardonic wit with the melancholy soul that so foreshadows Hamlet. In addition to numerous CSC successes, Chris Guthrie was an electrifying Hamlet in Know Theater's stunning, award-winning production last season. Here as Romeo, he too often subs shouting for passion and in Act II allows the character to descend into blubbering self-pity.
Not CSC's best, but worthy of note nonetheless. Grade: B+
ROMEO AND JULIET, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Oct. 7.