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StarCrossed at the Phoenix Theater

Restoring Novelty to the Prequel

Face it -- most prequels are, by definition, passé. Case in point: the glossy histrionics of the Star Wars "episodes," which are surprisingly tedious in comparison to their technologically impaired predecessors. Wrestling with a tried and true formula is a risky venture, and most of the folks who do so usually end up regurgitating pallid, albeit beefed-up versions of the original rather than stuff that makes us stir in our seats with interest. Not so with director Jeffrey Hartgraves' production of "StarCrossed", a clever piece penned by award-winning playwright Sharyn Shipley.

Excising the convoluted iambic pentameter and Elizabethan linguistics of "Romeo and Juliet", for which the new play is a prequel, Hartgraves and Shipley have created a story that simultaneously makes one recall the timeless appeal of Shakespeare's tragedy and marvel at the inventiveness and ingenuity that still manage to emerge.

"StarCrossed" is a brisk, playful rendering of the misadventures that lead to the vendetta between the Montagues and Capulets of Verona. At the center of the action are the libertine, Callisto DiSenna (played by Chris Kelly), and his headstrong twin sister, Catherine (Sigrid Surter), who resists her inevitable fate of being married off to a wealthy nobleman. While the relationship between Callisto and Catherine is a mixture of adolescent vivacity and semi-incestuous passion, Callisto has his eye on appropriate suitors for his sister.

When Callisto is seen gambling with his friends, the pompous nobleman Tiberio Montague (Elias Escobedo) and the silver-tongued gallant Adrianod DeCapulet (Craig Stein), we discover that lords Montague and Capulet aren't on the greatest of terms with each other. Capulet has seduced a woman Montague loves, and plays it off with maddening aplomb. When the men engage in archaic locker room talk about their latest conquests, Montague reveals that he is ready to settle down with a woman who is pure and virtuous, since he's still rankled by his ex-paramour's capitulation to Capulet.

Callisto offers up Catherine, but when she and Montague meet, she is turned off by his conceit and rigidity, and he by her self-importance. In a predictable twist of fate, Capulet spies on Catherine as she lingers on her balcony one moonlit evening, and falls in love with her at the same time that Montague realizes he can't stop thinking about her. Finally, Catherine falls prey to Capulet's seductive wiles, with foreseeable consequences. The rest of the play is an incessant feat of seduction, misplaced loyalty, betrayal, and deceit.

Some of the most engaging scenes take place in the interior spaces, when Catherine offers a sympathetic ear to her cousin Bernadine, who is experiencing some serious pre-nuptial anxiety. In these scenes, Shipley's play proffers incisive commentary on women's roles and the oppressive nature of matrimony. At the same time, she creates female characters that toe the line between girlhood and womanhood, negotiating their doom by taking lovers or demanding sexual satisfaction from their mates. The mixture of ribaldry and lamentation in these scenes makes the characters all the more believable.

Hartgraves boasts an accomplished, versatile cast full of understated talent. Sigrid Surter's Catherine is full of exquisite restraint, subtly using her gestures and facial expressions as vehicles to keep the dramatic tension aloft. Elias Escobedo offers a complex, sympathetic performance of the high and mighty Montague, while Craig Stein's Capulet undergoes a convincing transformation from imprudent Casanova to devoted lover. Chris Kelley's Callisto is a sinuous dandy who's equally adept at conveying both absurdity and tragedy, while Tiffany Hoover's Orangina (Catherine's aunt) is a quick-witted bawd with a whip-like sensibility who manages to keep the play from meandering into humorless cliché. Topher Busenburg's set design is beautifully minimal, and bare platforms magically transform from windswept balconies to sun-dappled plazas with the suggestive maneuverings of light and sound.

"StarCrossed" doesn't purport to be a deep play. It's a comprehensible yet literate rendering of Shakespeare's world -- full of romantic platitudes, unrequited passions, and vengeful duels -- but there's a nearly self-conscious sense of imitation throughout Shipley's narrative and the actors' dramatic choices. Shipley's play seems to poke light fun at the paradigm of ruinous romance that western literature is fraught with, but "StarCrossed" is too gentle to be a parody.

If "Romeo and Juliet" set the scene for one of literature's most celebrated motifs, "StarCrossed" carries the formula with bravado and the good sense to never attempt to upstage the original.

"StarCrossed" runs through Saturday, 6.4.
at the Phoenix Theater