Romeo and Juliet

A current trend of Off-Broadway theatre has been to deconstruct Shakespeare, offering innovative, pared-down versions of the plays. Consider the Chicago Shakespeare Theater's recent offering of "Rose Rage." That version of "Henry VI" (all three parts) takes place in a Chicago slaughterhouse where cabbages, not heads, are decapitated and chunks of liver are split asunder.

In a similar vein, "Romeo and Juliet" undergoes a dizzy overhauling at Jean Cocteau Repertory. Shakespeare's teenage melodrama hurtles forward in a nonstop 95-minute telling of the tale. Eight actors play all roles, changing gender, age, and status in a flash.

The gist of the story comes through with familiar dialogue and familiar scenes, but much has disappeared. Where, for instance, is the famous balcony scene?

Does this approach work? Yes and no.

Initially, all is confusion as the actors play out the scenes of violence on the Verona streets. It's hard to say who is who, as a player quickly turns into someone else.

Director Rod McLucas' props are also multipurpose. He has ingeniously used chains and leather strips (courtesy of costume and set designer Michael McKowen) to serve as ornamental belts or weapons of mass destruction. Ultimately, though, one tires of the repetitive pulling and pushing about as the actors constantly circle each other.

But one half-hour into the show, the story emerges in all its tragic force. And the actors, in clearly defined roles, come into their own. Kristina Klebe is a radiant Juliet, all youthful impatience and rash passion. And Anna Zastrow gives a delicious portrayal of the dotty Nurse. Their mutual scenes are the production's highlights. Yet when Zastrow becomes Lord Capulet, she makes the leap easily.

In all, a vibrant young cast in cleverly devised costumes captures the wild spirit of this early Shakespeare tragedy.