Story: The Prince of Verona has had it up to here with the long-standing feud between the Capulets and Montagues, two distinguished local families. He demands a cessation of the hatred under penalty of death. Emotions still hold sway, though, and when young Romeo Montague falls in love with the young teen Juliet Capulet at a masked ball, her kinsman Tybalt is enraged and vows to seek revenge.
Having secretly agreed with Juliet that they marry, Romeo later refuses to fight Tybalt. His pal Mercutio, though, has no such reservations and subsequently is slain in a sword battle with Tybalt. The impassioned Romeo then kills Tybalt, and is forced to flee the city to escape the prince’s punishment.
Ordered by her father to marry the prince’s lackluster relative Paris, Juliet seeks solace from Friar Lawrence, who secretly has married her to Romeo. He gives her a potion that will make her appear to be dead, from which she will awake in her family’s tomb and run off with Romeo. Plans go terribly wrong, though, causing first Romeo to kill himself and then Juliet to take her own life.
Highlights: Shakespeare’s tragedy of young lovers might be the most performed of any work in his canon, whether comedies, histories or tragedies. The problem, therefore, inherent in any recreation is to breathe life into what is overly familiar and, doubtless to many, a tedious exercise in the known and predictable.
Director Suki Peters addresses that dilemma at least partially successfully by casting two actual teenagers in the title roles. Furthermore, Leo Ramsey and Emily Jackoway are not only age appropriate, but each handles the formidable task at hand quite well, giving St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest version of Romeo & Juliet an appealing hook.
Other Info: There are other major pluses to this presentation as well. Charlie Barron and Roger Erb both give spirited performances as Mercutio and Tybalt, respectively, filling their characters with the bravado and bluster necessary to make their swagger authentic.
Additionally, they engage in a singularly rousing round of sword play, courtesy of assistant director Brian Peters’ inspired fight choreography. There’s even a particularly gruesome end to Tybalt in a fountain set purposely at center stage.
Also strong is Christi Mitchel as Lady Capulet. Her screams of anguish at finding her apparently dead daughter resonate throughout DeSmet High School’s Hunter Theatre, chillingly depicting the crushing heartbreak one would expect at such a sight. Conversely, her strength also serves to illustrate the limitations of Brian Rolf as Lord Capulet, Cindy Lewis as Lady Montague and Chuck Winning as Lord Montague.
While Jamie Eros generally does well in the role of Juliet’s busybody nurse, one might hope for more power and persuasion by Paul Devine as Friar Lawrence and Paul Edwards as Paris. Maxwell Knocke is satisfactory as the long-suffering Prince of Verona and Brian Kappler is fine as Romeo’s pal, Benvolio.
Others in the ensemble include Andrew Weber, Mitch Eagles, Erik Kuhn, John Foughty, Abby Lampe and Katherine Robinson.
Suki Peters does a generally convincing job of coaxing effective performances by the two young players in the title parts, although they don’t bring the gravitas to their roles that more seasoned and accomplished actors might. There’s a lot to be said, though, for casting young people as the star-crossed lovers, as they convey the impetuous love and reckless abandon that mark the Bard’s famous tale.
Pacing, however, is a serious issue here, as this Romeo & Juliet staggers in at around three hours. While the first act culminates in the thrilling and exhilarating fight scene between Tybalt and Mercutio, the overly long second act creaks tortuously along to a finale everyone knows all too well.
Winning’s scenic design handsomely conveys a courtyard as well as the houses of the warring Capulets and Montagues at either end, with that courtyard anchored by a fountain that works so well at the end of Act I. Other fight scenes in Act II, though, just seem to force the issue of having the swordsmen run around the fountain and through the background columns, with little purpose.
Jaime Zayas’ lighting is particularly outstanding, softly focusing on the famous balcony love scene and accenting other scenes too, such as those in the Capulet tomb. Josh Cook adds Elizabethan music and other evocative strains in his sound design, Eros contributes pleasant choreography in the masked ball sequence and Beth Ashby dresses everyone in a wardrobe that fits the era.
There’s quite a bit to admire, but much to avoid as well, in this ambitious but uneven St. Louis Shakespeare presentation of Romeo & Juliet.
Play: Romeo & Juliet
Company: St. Louis Shakespeare
Venue: Hunter Theatre, DeSmet High School, 233 North New Ballas
Dates: April 3, 4, 5, 6
Tickets: $8-$25; contact 1-800-838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Brian Peters