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It's not perfect, but it is Shakespeare

Almost everything's right in the University of South Florida's new staging of Romeo and Juliet.

The Renaissance costumes are supernaturally sumptuous. The single set is beautiful and serves its multiple functions ably. Sword fights are designed in a harrowing, believable manner, and they are performed precisely and energetically.

Best of all, the overarching concept is wonderfully effective. Director Tamara Harvey, a visitor to USF from Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London, has used her home theater's template for this production. There are no set changes, so the pace is fluid without being hurried. And the audience remains in light throughout, which proves to be remarkably undistracting and allows for an unusual kind of intimacy between the actors and audience.

There's only one problem. But it's a huge problem.

Despite much valiant effort, the student cast simply isn't up to the demands of the highly stylized language.

It's a shame, because throughout the play, it's obvious that every cast member has worked long and hard, and is earnestly trying to deliver the emotional richness that the material requires.

Almost all the actors with large roles have some sparkling moments, and a few (notably Michael Mason Wiley as Tybalt and Patrick Howsare as Paris) achieve some naturalism and charisma. Gi Sung is occasionally hilarious as Juliet's nurse.

And without exception, the cast members meet the production's considerable physical demands beautifully.

But they simply don't seem to have sufficient experience or training to handle the rigors of Shakespearean language. Through much of the play, the actors deliver their lines with exaggerated sing-song rhythms. They've mastered iambic pentameter, but they miss the complexities of meaning and richness of emotion. The balcony scene, among the most famous passages in theater history, actually comes off as semicomic.

It's understandable and forgivable. This is a college production, and performing Shakespeare is a requisite part of these students' training.

But that doesn't make the play any more edifying as a theater experience. It's akin to watching a bunch of kids playing against a professional football team: You applaud their efforts, you desperately want them to succeed, but ultimately it's not much fun to watch them get beaten up.

Thanks to the work of Harvey, choreographer Sian Williams, fight choreographer Jeff Norton and designer William Brewer, the production stays afloat from start to finish, and during the more physical moments, the actors do such fine work that it's transcendent. At scattered moments, they achieve some elegance in their language, too.

The enormous highs and lows average out and make this overall an admirable but emotionally unexceptional experience. Still, even mediocre Shakespeare is better than most of what local theatergoers usually get to see.

REVIEW: Romeo and Juliet, through March 5 at Theatre II on the University of South Florida's Tampa campus. 8 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat.-Sun. $12 adults, $6 students and seniors. (813) 974-2323; www.artsmart.usf.edu.

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