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Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Elena Araoz
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
June 1, 2018

Sigrid Wise, Reynaldo Piniella
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

One of the things I love about Shakespeare is how timeless and adaptable the plays are. No matter what the setting, whether traditionally staged or modern dress, the plays still speak to modern times in terms of universal themes such as love, jealousy, family, friendships, and more. Sometimes, though, the staging of a play can set these themes in a way that’s more immediately accessible to modern audiences who may not be as famliar with more traditional stagings.  St Louis Shakespeare’s current production of Romeo and Juliet is a prime example of that kind of modern immediacy. With a strong sense of theme, a quick pace, and particularly modern phrasing, this production brings the classic story to life in a way that’s especially likely to resonate with today’s audience.

The familiar story of star-crossed lovers is here, presented on a colorful, scaffolding-and-neon decorated set designed by Margery and Peter Spack. The brightly colored costumes by Dottie Marshall Englis feature elements of various times, from modern day, to the 1970s and 80s, to Elizabethan times. The men wear swords, but also occasionally sport modern-style backpacks or carry an 80s-era boombox. Romeo (Reynaldo Piniella) and his friends Mercutio (Terrell Wheeler) and Benvolio (Antonio Rodriguez) are dressed in more “today” clothes, while Romeo’s parents, Lord and Lady Montague (David Heron, Patrice Foster) are more 70s-styled, while Lord and Lady Capulet (Michael James Reed, Cherie Corrine Rice) are in more of a modern upper class style, and Juliet (Sigrid Wise) is in vaguely modern styles that can’t really be tied to a specific decade, and the Nurse (Jane Paradise) is outfitted in more generally traditional garb, as is Friar Lawrence (Gary Glasgow); and the Prince (Pete Winfrey, who also plays Paris) is decidedly more Elizabethan. It’s a hodgepodge of styles, but possibly because of the color scheme and the vaguely but not specifically modern set, it’s all more or less cohesive.  The tone-shift inherent in this play, from comedy in the first half to tragedy in the second, is maintained here, with the early scenes given a sort of ominous underscoring by the excellent Dust Ensemble, who provided a musical score for the production that lends much to the overall atmosphere, style, and drama of the production, along with Rusty Wandall’s sound design and John Wylie’s bold lighting design.

One notable difference from other productions of this play that I’ve scene is the way the language is delivered. Shakespeare’s dialogue has not been altered, but the way the characters speak it has been given a more directly modern cadence and approach, so that the youth of the title characters and their peers is highlighted all the more, as is the boldness and confrontational tone of much of the proceedings. The words and fast-paced direction blend well with the musical score to heighten the emotions of key moments. The cast is excellent, as well, with Piniella’s impulsive Romeo and Wise’s sheltered, curious Juliet well-matched, bringing a chemistry to their interactions that is easy to believe. There are also standout performances from Wheeler as a particularly brash Mercutio, Dakota Granados as the confrontational Tybalt, Paradise as the devoted, doting Nurse, Glasgow as the well-meaning Friar Lawrence, and Patrick Blindauer in three distinct roles. The Montagues and Capulets are well-paired, as well, and performances are strong and cohesive across the board.

As excellent as this production is, I have one quibble with the overall Festival set-up this year. The general layout of the space at Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen has been changed around significantly, with the Green Show stage, refreshment stands, and other areas moved from where they have been for the past several years. For the most part, this works, except for the woefully inadequate restroom facilities that have been reduced in number and moved much further away from where they used to be. I imagine this could cause difficulties with crowds during intermission. I hope the Festival fixes this situation in future years.

As for the play itself, the overall impression of this production is a fresh, bold approach to the material that brings out the youthfulness of the protagonists and the seriousness of their story. Although much of the styling here in from previous decades, tonally this is a Romeo and Juliet for today, directed in a way that makes the action and relationships immediate and relatable.  It’s another excellent presentation of Shakespeare’s work from SFSTL.

Reynaldo Piniella, Sigrid Wise
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Romeo and Juliet in Forest Park until June 24, 2018.

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