The American Shakespeare Center kicks off its 25th anniversary season with that well-known staple of Shakespeare companies and high school curriculums Romeo and Juliet. Artistic Director Jim Warren stages a Romeo and Juliet that, as he states in his director's notes, mines every compelling moment in this story. As Mr. Warren comments there is no right side in this deadly feud. The kids aren't right and the parents aren't wrong, and most importantly, by striving to strike a balance in this story of more woe, it is very clear that everyone is making their decisions, however rashly and quickly, because they truly believe that are doing it for the right reasons.
All of the elements are present in what has become known as the American Shakespeare Center's performance style. There is universal lighting, the audience can sit upon the stage and there is ample interaction between actors and audience. Yet, no matter how many times you have read the play or seen a production of Romeo and Juliet this production will contain surprises for even the most seasoned Shakespearean theatre-goer.
Unlike other productions, minor characters are not cut or consolidated with other characters to give a better known character a larger part. So, when, for example, Romeo's cousin Benvolio vanishes from the story after Act III, Scene 1, he stays vanished from the story. Cousin Capulet shows up to dance at Capulet's ball. The entire comedic role of the servant Peter is intact. Most surprising, the prologue to the balcony scene is enacted here.
A very strong artistic team assists Mr. Warren and his ensemble of actors in bringing the world of Romeo and Juliet to life. Costume designer Erin M. West creates contemporary ensembles that seem right for this Verona and a color scheme that helps the audience keep track of whom belongs to which feuding family or the royal family as soon as that character enters the stage. Stephanie Holladay Earl has choreographs a jolly bit of fun for the dance at the Capulet ball. Benjamin Curns creates heart-stopping fight choreography that is both beautiful to watch and, when called for, astonishing in its brutality.
Tracie Thomason and Dylan Paul are charming, youthful, brash and impulsive as the star-crossed lovers. They easily mine the comedy in their impulsive first meeting and the anguish when their love story provides the catalyst for the horrendous tragedy that follows. Rene Thornton, Jr. shows a surprising deep love for his daughter Juliet that many other Lord Capulets lack. When he turns from doting father to outrage at his daughter's willful disobedience the audience is just as taken aback at his rage. Lee Fitzpatrick is a colder Lady Capulet, yet behind her reserve, there is a passionate side that she lets the audience see when her beloved family members die. John Harrell seems a preening peacock as the hotheaded Tybalt, his proud facade barely containing his rage.
There are three revelatory performances in this outstanding ensemble and they are all three, long time American Shakespeare Center vets. Gregory Jon Phelps turns Mercutio into such a lovable rogue that we genuinely feel the loss of his character at his untimely death. Mr. Phelps takes one of the best known poetry speeches, the famed Queen Mab speech, and mines it for every bawdy, comic image and joke and wrings laughter and groans from the audience. For once the speech feels like the natural teasing of a love-sick friend, rather than simply a recitation of beautiful poetry.
There is a tradition at the American Shakespeare Center of cross gender casting. As is well known, in Shakespeare's day, all of the women's roles would have been played by men. The American Shakespeare Center uses that tradition upon occasion and also gives women the opportunity to portray men's roles as well. Allison Glenzer takes on the role of Friar Lawrence in this production. Ms. Glenzer takes the role of Friar Lawrence and has him react in ways that the adults in the audience probably would do in similar circumstances. Lawrence's chastising of Romeo for falling in and out of love so quickly establishes Lawrence as that authority figure that teenagers can trust and Ms. Glenzer easily earns the trust of the audience as well.
Juliet's Nurse is one of the great female comic roles in all of Shakespeare. In the hands of Benjamin Curns the Nurse is a towering terror of a mother bear to her precious Juliet. Yet, there is a gentle warmth to Mr. Curns particularly when the Nurse must counsel Juliet in the aftermath of Romeo's banishment. Whenever an actor takes on a female role there is an initial bit of tittering from the audience. With Mr. Curns that initial "egad, it's a man" quickly vanishes as he gives us a complex woman, Juliet's true mother, who loves her charge fiercely.
William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is being performed as part of the American Shakespeare Center's 25th Anniversary summer season through November 30, 2013. It is being performed in repertory with Shakespeare's Alls Well That Ends Well and Bob Carlton's Return To The Forbidden Planet. In September it will be joined in repertory by Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida and Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops To Conquer. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.