Richard Baird's direction of this Poor Players half-a-shoestring production makes up in energy, invention, and daring what it lacks in technical stage resources. It commences with Maile Stephenson sweetly singing Puccini's "O mio babbino caro" as Romeo (Brandon Walker) and Juliet (Rachael Van Wormer) intimately waltz, invoking an operatic and Italianate passion that carries into the Montague versus Capulet feudings with an intensity like that of Cavalleria Rusticana. Then Chorus, played by Baird with all his remarkable emotional range, presides over a deathly tableau that prefigures the final tomb scene. Later, Baird reappears as a Friar Laurence so startlingly headstrong and domineering that the friar's climactic failure of nerve seems almost jarringly out of character.
Overwhelmingly, though, Baird's theatrical inventiveness, as actor and director, brings tremendous freshness and fascination to this Romeo and Juliet, even though a few of his devices misfire. Some fiddly business steals focus, and frequent sight line problems in the thrust stage configuration could easily be solved by diagonal blocking. And having Romeo so totally lose his cool as to riddle Tybalt (John Aviles) with a Glock seems over the top. But there are many marvelous moments, such as the incremental revelations of just how fatal is the wounding of Mercutio (Max Macke), and Laurence's on-the-spot concocting of Juliet's coma compound. Though Romeo may be portrayed as a something of a shlub, what keeps the show from turning into "The Tragedy of Friar Laurence" is Rachael Van Wormer's utterly verismo and captivating Juliet. Seeming physically and emotionally the barely legal 15 years that Juliet should be, even her indignant adolescent shrieks are endearing. And Van Wormer works that terrible and magical forced transformation of Juliet into a premature womanhood that just might have been able—through the blossoming power of her passionate intelligence—to change the inchoate Romeo too, had they lived, into the real man her vast romantic inspiration imagines in him. Van Wormer's frail reed of a Juliet becomes invincible, irresistible, someone we can't take our eyes off of.
"Romeo and Juliet," presented by Poor Players at the Adams Avenue Studio of the Performing Arts, 2804 Adams Ave., San Diego. Sun. & Mon. 7 pm, Jan. 8-31, and Thu.-Sat. 8 pm. Jan. 27-29. $15. (619) 584-3593.