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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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Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Suki Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare
March 28, 2014

Emily Jackoway, Leo Ramsey Photo by Brian Peters St. Louis Shakespeare

Emily Jackoway, Leo Ramsey
Photo by Brian Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet is, with the possible exception of Hamletprobably Shakespeare’s best-known play.  Most adults will remember it mostly from having to study it in English class in high school, or perhaps from one or both of the most popular movie versions (either Franco Zefferelli’s or Baz Luhrmann’s).  This familiarity presents something of a challenge to theatre companies when they produce it. Since everyone already thinks they know what it’s about, the challenge is whether to try to live up to the general expectations (more like the Zefferelli film) or try something more bold and outside-the-box (more like the Luhrmann film).  In this latest production, presented at the Hunter Theatre at DeSmet Jesuit High School, St. Louis Shakespeare has gone the more straightforward route.  With a production built around the strong performances of its young lead performers, the company has produced a thoughtful, striking and, for the most part, well-paced production of a classic play that is more complex than it may appear.

One of the strengths of this production is that the tone is just right. This is something of a strange play in that it essentially starts out as a comedy. Yes, there are the feuding families–Montagues and Capulets–but the overall tone throughout the first half is lighthearted.  Director Suki Peters gets the pacing just right, as we are introduced to Romeo (Leo Ramsey) and his friends Benvolio (Brian Kappler) and Mercutio (Charlie Barron) as they prepare to attend a party hosted by Lord and Lady Capulet (Brian J. Rolf and Christi Mitchel), are taunted by brash Capulet kinsman Tybalt (Roger Erb), and listen to Romeo’s speeches concerning his infatuation with the unseen Rosaline, who he promptly forgets upon meeting the Capulets’ daughter Juliet (Emily Jackoway) at the party.  Juliet is young and curious about the world, with a doting Nurse (Jamie Eros) and parents who are eager to arrange her marriage to the well-connected Paris (Paul Edwards).  Upon meeting, Romeo and Juliet are suddenly struck by the giddiness and impulsiveness of young love.  They secretly marry and are all full of hope for the reconciliation of their families.  Then,the belligerent Tybalt, angry at Romeo for sneaking into the party, goes looking for him and things get serious.  Mercutio accepts Tybalt’s challenge when Romeo refuses, and an initially light-hearted sparring session quickly turns ugly. Everything goes downhill from there, as anyone who is familiar with the story knows.  The second half of the show is all tragedy, and the actors handle the transition extremely well as the play drives to its bleak and inevitable conclusion, in which the star-crossed lovers meet their fate.

The casting is key in this production, and the young leads make a convincing pair. It’s refreshing to see the teenage Romeo and Juliet played by actors who appear to be close to the right age. The youthful energy and impulsiveness is there, and both Jackoway and Ramsey do an excellent job of switching from the more upbeat earlier scenes to the more tragic later events.  Ramsey is all earnest and effusive, and Jackoway is full of wide-eyed wonder in their first scenes together, and the classic balcony scene is sweetly romantic and engaging, with genuine chemistry that makes their love scenes all the more convincing, and their parting after the tragedy begins to enfold is both truthful and heartbreaking, as are their tragic last moments. These two are the real emotional anchors of this production, ideally suited for their roles and bringing all the range of emotions from breathless joy to haunting sorrow with honesty and strength.  They are well supported by the rest of the cast, especially Eros as the earthy, sympathetic Nurse, Paul Devine as the wise but somewhat bumbling Friar Lawrence, Barron as the witty and brash Mercuitio, and Erb as the menacing Tybalt.  Mitchel also has a great moment as Lady Capulet mourns for Tybalt. There were a few supporting players who are less convincing, such as Maxwell Knocke as a particularly surly and shouty Prince Escalus, and Edwards as a basically bland Paris, although for the most part this is a strong cast, demonstrating excellent comic and dramatic abilities as the atmosphere of the play shifts.

The look of this production is very traditional, with well-suited costumes by Beth Ashby and an evocative set by Chuck Winning complete that effectively achieves the Old World marble-and-stone look, with some nice touches like a working fountain. Despite  a minor issue with the sound in that I sometimes had trouble hearing what was being said, it’s a solid effort technically. I was especially impressed by Brian Peters’ dynamic fight choreography, particularly the highly suspenseful sword fight between Mercutio and Tybalt and the subsequent battle between Romeo and Tybalt.  In keeping with the tone change of the play, the first fight starts out playfully and then swiftly escalates in brutality. It’s an excellent showcase for the actors as well, and Ramsey’s moment of realization after his confrontation with Tybalt is one of the most memorable moments in the show.  It’s a very physical production, with a raw emotional energy that builds with startling realism.

This production is sure to spark all the usual debates about whether Romeo and Juliet were really in love, or what would have happened if the families didn’t let their own prejudices cloud their judgment, and whether or not the blend of comedy and tragedy works. In this production, I would say that blend is what works best of all.  With two charismatic and youthful leads, and a well-realized vision and excellent pacing, this story unfolds with engaging, shocking, jarring and ultimately gut-wrenching effectiveness.  It’s a classic story well-told.

Roger Erb, Charlie Barron Photo by Brian Peters St. Louis Shakespeare

Roger Erb, Charlie Barron
Photo by Brian Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare

 

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