By Vicki Weisfeld

“For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opened its production of this classic tragedy, directed by Ian Belknap, on October 19, and it runs through November 17.

You know the story. An implacable hatred has arisen between two Verona families: the Capulets and the Montagues. Prince Escalus (played by Jason C. Brown), fed up with the constant street-fighting of the two households, vows to have any future combatants executed. Romeo (Keshav Moodliar) attends a banquet hosted by the rival Capulets in disguise. He sees their daughter Juliet (Miranda Rizzolo), the two instantly fall in love, and Friar Lawrence (Matt Sullivan) secretly marries them. Meanwhile, Juliet’s father (Mark Elliot Wilson) intends her to marry wealthy Count Paris (Ryan Woods).

Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Joshua David Robinson) is slain by a goading Tybalt of the house of Capulet (Torsten Johnson), and Romeo slays him in revenge. Instead of executing Romeo, Prince Escalus banishes him. Though the sentence is merciful, Romeo regards it as a heart-breaking separation from Juliet.

To thwart her imminent marriage to Paris, Friar Lawrence gives Juliet a sleeping potion that mimics death, and she’s placed in the family tomb. That night, Paris visits the tomb, soon followed by a distraught Romeo. They fight. Romeo kills him and, seeing Juliet apparently dead, drinks poison. Juliet wakes, finds Romeo dead, and kills herself. The Prince admonishes the parents, saying, “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate that Heav’n finds means to kill your joys with love.”

Over the years, I’ve come to recognize that although Romeo is an effective swordsman, with at least two notches on his scabbard, he’s something of a weakling. He’s dreamy, falls in love too easily, and even his father laments his lack of focus. It’s a trait seen to excess here because at the same time, he needs to be a credible lover. The weakness of this production is the lack of chemistry and connection between its two eponymous characters.

Perhaps in trying to make the play approachable for new generations, Belknap encouraged the actors to hurry along and avoid ensnarement by Shakespeare’s rhythmic prose. At times, though, the main characters spoke so quickly I couldn’t follow (from the front row). If length was a consideration, judicious cutting would have been preferable to racing through the dialog. Romeo and Juliet is a wonderful play. I want my full measure of enjoyment out of it.

Others in the seventeen-member cast include: Isaac Hickox-Young as Benvolio, Aedin Moloney as the nurse, Erin Partin as Lady Capulet, and Michael Dale as Lord Montague.

Production credits to Lee Savage (whose spare palladian set provides subtle atmosphere and great flexibility), Paul Canada (costumes), Michael Giannitti (lighting), Fabian Obispo (sound), Rick Sordelet (fight direction), and Larry Copeland (production stage management).

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!