New Jersey Ballet presents gripping double dose of Shakespeare

The witches in New Jersey Ballet's "Macbeth."

VAM PRODUCTIONS

The witches in New Jersey Ballet’s “Macbeth.”

As an introduction to the classics, abridgements always leave something to be desired. Yet adaptations of famous plays and novels remain popular, and perhaps the true test of a literary masterpiece is how far the original premise can be stretched (“West Side Story,” anyone?).

Choreographers prize Shakespeare especially, and one can see why. His flesh-and-blood tragedies seem to crave physical embodiment.

On Saturday at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, New Jersey Ballet performed one-act versions of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth,” both rent with passion. These “pocket” classics have been doubly abridged, since the ballets were initially evening-length. Yet the choreographers — Johan Renvall for “Romeo,” and Konstantin Dournev for “Macbeth” — have been clever surgeons, nipping and tucking the dramas to fit a small budget.

To compensate for abrupt transitions, Renvall has given his “Romeo” a new conceit foregrounding the characters of Friar Laurence and Juliet’s Nurse. Seated on a bench at the side of the stage where they meet to share a drink (the Friar’s experience with potions makes him a natural mixologist), they present the drama as a series of fragmentary recollections. Though Shakespeare’s ornery patriarchs are missing in this version, a scene in which Romeo and the Nurse speed by each other blindly going in opposite directions restores an important plot detail; and this shrunken “Romeo” still offers the dancers a handful of juicy roles. Andre Luis Teixeira is a simmering, stiff-jawed Tybalt who turns coward and tries to flee after murdering Ruben Rascon’s electric Mercutio. As Romeo, Leonid Flegmatov seems a natural innocent. Yet this production is all about Mari Sugawa’s graceful Juliet, and her transition from a bashful child to a woman hungering for love.

When it comes to gut-wrenching drama, however, it’s hard to beat “Macbeth.” Danced by Narek Martirosyan, the would-be Scottish king is a strongman who either moves large, with space-devouring jumps and outsize gestures, or who moves not at all, straddling the stage and magnetizing viewers with his intensity. This display of power makes his downfall all the more humiliating, in the scene in which Lady Macbeth forces him to grovel at her feet.

Dournev has expanded the role of the three Witches, who return periodically to check on Macbeth and shoo his destiny along; and the choreographer has interpolated a play-within-the-play, in which doll-like actors enact a miniature crime of passion. Watching this divertissement turns Kerry Mara Cox, as Lady Macbeth, into a type of crazed theatergoer determined to make the little pantomime a blood-soaked reality.

But if you can’t blame the actors, then who can you blame?

New Jersey Ballet will repeat the program at the Wilkins Theatre at Kean University in Union; March 21, and at BergenPAC in Englewood, April 18. Visit keanstage.com or bergenpac.org.

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