William Shakespeare needs no justification. And the Shakespeare Project 2005, an ambitious summer-long festival now onstage at New Theatre, holds the immense promise of some of the most exciting drama the world has known. Romeo and Juliet, which will be followed by The Merchant of Venice in July and Macbeth in August, makes good on much of that pledge. Rafael de Acha's direction is sensitive and swift. And the best performances -- from Euriamis Losada's irresistible Romeo to Kimberly Daniel's humorous and heartbreaking Nurse -- reveal gleaming facets of the kaleidoscope that is Shakespeare.
The colors of a kaleidoscope are never depleted. Rather they are renewed by each new dawn's surprising light. In Shakespeare's plays that light shines on both the sweetest and darkest corners of the human heart. Being young and growing old, being human and remaining humane, and the reckless innocence of Romeo and Juliet; the timeless multicultural challenges of The Merchant of Venice; the cold truths of political evil in Macbeth; the violent eroticism of Coriolanus; the autumnal realities of King Lear; the melancholic joys of The Tempest; the Sylvan pleasures of the sonnets: These are the many facets of Shakespeare's works, themes that govern our lives. Like the greatest playwrights of Ancient Greece, Shakespeare could re-create onstage all the terror and pity of human tragedy. He also accepted, joyfully and disarmingly, the perplexity of human existence. In the face of our human need for answers and clarity, Shakespeare had the courage to portray life as an open question. That makes him everyone's playwright.
For centuries Shakespeare's genius has been fodder for fruitful intellectual explorations of every kind, from John Dryden to Terry Eagleton, and from romanticism and its legacy to existentialism, structuralism, deconstructionism, and beyond. Romeo and Juliet alone has been the source of many a masterpiece, from great scores by Berlioz and Prokofiev to unforgettable choreography by John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan, as well as the inspiration for West Side Story -- the finest achievement of Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins's -- not to mention countless popcorn teen flicks and Telemundo novelas about the ungovernable passion between star-crossed lovers.
But the play's the thing. So is the impossibly generous spirit actors reveal as they bring to life the miracle of Shakespearean language. At its best, which is often, a Shakespeare play cannot be exhausted with one or a hundred interpretations. A whole lifetime of exploring Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice, or Macbeth will not satisfy our thirst for the elusive, resplendent truth at the heart of his writings. We return to Shakespeare because we need to. We, actors and audiences alike, can bask in the warmth of his glow this summer in the same way millions worldwide have done for centuries. If a performance is not perfect -- and the festival's debut of Romeo and Juliet is far from it -- enough remains that outshines nearly anything else theater can offer.
The show at New Theatre does work. Michael McKeever's simple faux-stucco unit set, complete with the necessary balcony, useful arches, and stairs, is a tad too naturalistic but nevertheless effective. Estela Vrancovich's Napoleonic-era costumes -- flattering tight Capri pants for the men, unflattering maternity dresses gathered at the bodice for the women -- work well and betray their low budget only by the poorly constructed hats. De Acha's editing of the text is clever and condenses the five-act play into a fast-moving two. The cuts are particularly effective in the opening, with minor characters eliminated and their lines reassigned to Tybalt and Benvolio; omissions are less welcome in the last act, when too many details are lost that would ordinarily explain Romeo's tragic confusion. No matter, by this point Euriamis Losada as Romeo has the audience in tears, and the words that remain for Friar Laurence and the Prince of Verona are but a bass line to the melody of his grief.
Losada, who will return as Bassanio and Macduff in The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth, respectively, is quite a find. He is a sexy, fiery, impossibly young Romeo. Like Kimberly Daniel as the Nurse, Losada persuades us that American English is the ideal instrument for Shakespeare's glorious, verbal music. Daniel's bawdiness never strays into vulgarity, and her discovery of Juliet's body is heartrending. The poetry of Shakespeare's words sings when these actors speak, and the drama is well served. At least as impressive is Nicholas Richberg as Mercutio. His "Queen Mab" monologue is hilarious. Mercutio's death scene, in which he curses the two houses that have caused his demise, is exquisite, raw, profoundly poetic, and brutally real. It would be fascinating to see Richberg and Losada take turns in repertory as Romeo and his passionate friend; as it is, their banter is more successful than that of Romeo and Juliet in bringing to life the sensual rhythms of Shakespeare's rhymes. That is because Cecilia Torres is beyond her range as Juliet. It's all right for the unfortunate Paris to be clueless -- Korken Iskenderian makes much of that aspect of the role -- but a clueless Juliet is a shame, and much of the play's power is dimmed by Torres in her attempt to make sense of Juliet's speeches.
Clueless and weightless might also describe the otherwise strikingly handsome Arnaldo Carmouze as Tybalt. The smaller roles vary in quality, and the acting styles never quite mesh into one unified texture. But for the most part they do justice to the play. Christian Mansfield as Benvolio seems to have stepped in from an Avenue Q rehearsal, but he manages to wring real pathos in the last scene. Annemaria Rajala, too stiff at first, and the honey-voiced Stephen S. Neal have their moments as Lady and Lord Capulet. The fights, choreographed by associate director Ricky J. Martinez, are brilliantly staged: There is real danger here. Come to think of it, there is real life in the Shakespeare Project 2005.
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