Review: Georgia Ensemble fashions an elegant ‘Romeo & Juliet’

In and of itself, the idea of another production of Shakespeare’s classic romantic tragedy “Romeo & Juliet” is nothing new.

Or is it?

The play is arguably the Bard’s most widely known. Who among us didn’t read it back in high school, or hasn’t seen it numerous times on stage and screen through the years? The famous story, in a nutshell: A pair of star-crossed young lovers rebel against their feuding families, and, needless to say, they don’t live happily ever after.

While the show might not seem like such a groundbreaking undertaking anywhere else, coming from Roswell’s Georgia Ensemble Theatre, “Romeo & Juliet” represents the very first Shakespearean staging in the company’s 23-year history of producing more contemporary mainstream material.

Just as daring is artistic director Robert Farley’s selection of David Crowe to mount it. That’s not because Crowe isn’t enormously talented — he helmed two of last season’s best, the Ensemble’s “The Elephant Man” and Theatrical Outfit’s “Silent Sky” — but because, as hard as it is to believe, he doesn’t have any previous experience with Shakespeare, either.

All of which somehow infuses Crowe’s Ensemble rendition of “Romeo & Juliet” with an unexpected air of freshness. Moreover, if not as surprisingly, Crowe also imbues the show with his customarily inventive stylistic touches.

A few memorable scenes (including a lovely musical interlude) take place behind scrims at the back of Leslie Taylor’s handsome set, with a nod to Dusty Brown’s evocative lighting. Crowe’s sparing video projections incorporate atmospheric stars and clouds, or (most beautifully) symbolic falling rose pedals. The traditional period costumes are designed by Alan Yeong.

Occasional whispering effects — some live, some pre-recorded by sound designer Jason Polhemus — lend a notable impact to several portentous passages, deliberately or not emphasizing the vastly improved acoustics of the newly renovated Roswell Cultural Arts Center space.

The dialogue periodically overlaps. At times, different characters recite certain verses in unison, or they subconsciously shadow one another’s gestures, or they stop and freeze in motion for dramatic effect.

Generally speaking, Crowe’s cast handles most of the poetic language with relative clarity and naturalism, despite a tendency to wink and punctuate for a modern-day audience a lot of the sexual innuendo associated with Shakespeare’s use of words like “prick” and “pump.”

Indeed, Jennifer Alice Acker’s Juliet often registers as too earthy and aware, rather than appropriately ethereal or innocent. Jonathan Horne fares better portraying Romeo’s evolution from cocky adolescence to melancholy adulthood.

The supporting performances range from excellent (Kevin Stillwell and Megan McFarland as Lord and Lady Capulet) to acceptable (Allan Edwards’ Chorus, Heidi Cline McKerley’s Nurse) to overwrought (Steve Hudson’s Friar Laurence, Brandon Partrick’s Tybalt).

If it’s a cutting-edge “Romeo & Juliet” you want, then what a coincidence that the scrappy Fern Theatre happens to be running an all-female version of the play intown (at 7 Stages through Nov. 22).

In its own fashion, though, Georgia Ensemble’s production is no less adventurous — lest we forget what Juliet reminds us about a rose by any other name …

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