Story: Tensions have been high in Verona seemingly forever between the feuding Capulet and Montague families. Prince Escalus warns them to maintain civility upon threat of execution for the next killing, but it’s an uneasy truce.
Romeo Montague, teen son of Lord Montague and Lady Montague, fancies Rosaline Capulet, despite the animosity between their two clans. When he learns that she’ll be attending a masquerade ball hosted by her uncle and aunt, Lord and Lady Capulet, he sneaks into the party in disguise.
It’s there where he first sets eyes on Rosaline’s young cousin Juliet. The two instantly are attracted to each other and soon vow their love and desire to marry. Juliet’s quick-tempered cousin Tybalt is enraged by Romeo’s attendance at the ball, though, and goes after him later.
After being secretly married by Friar Laurence, Romeo is accosted by Tybalt. He refuses to fight Juliet’s cousin, but his friend Mercutio instead gets into a swordfight with Tybalt and is killed. Romeo then slays Tybalt in retaliation and is sent away by Friar Laurence for his own safety.
Friar Laurence concocts a plan whereby Juliet will take a potion which mimics death, allowing her to be sealed in her family’s crypt until Romeo finds her and the two of them can leave Verona together. The monk’s instructions to Romeo, however, never arrive.
When Romeo learns that Juliet has “died,” he goes to her tomb. After fatally wounding her heartbroken suitor, Count Paris, he kills himself. When Juliet awakens and sees Romeo’s lifeless body, she commits suicide. At the beseeching of Prince Escalus, the devastated Lord Montague and Lord Capulet call a truce to their long-standing feud.
Highlights: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis returns to its roots by staging a stylish and colorful version of The Bard’s classic tragedy about young love. Romeo & Juliet was the initial offering of Shakespeare Festival in its inaugural 2001 season.
Other Info: Director Elena Araoz notes in a company news release that Romeo & Juliet “is about big love...(and) that our identity is not defined by the exclusion of another.” To that end, her diverse cast presents a generally entertaining rendition of the time-honored story.
The flamboyant, festively decorated set designed by Peter and Margery Spack is described as “ominperiod” in the release, “meaning that it has a mix of both contemporary and Shakespearean elements, such as neon lights and a garage door coupled with a ‘Verona’-style brick tower and Italian sign.
“The set consist(s) of three layers: “Old Verona” designated by painted brick structures and a faded Italian welcome sign; scaffolding that show(s) an attempt for the present community to restore Verona to its glory days; and a layer of unexpected explosions of light and color that represent the love, hope and power the young characters bring to the crumbling and divided community.”
To amplify that vivid display, costumes designed by Dottie Marshall Englis “have a classic contemporary look, with Renaissance features, including brocade patterns, floral prints and doublets.” Add to that some jaunty, jazzy sounds in an original score written and performed by the Omaha-based percussion trio Dust Ensemble (comprised of Daniel Ocanto, Sean Smith and Graham Ulicny) and this version of Verona is a happening place.
All of that flair is handsomely illuminated with John Wylie’s intricate lighting design, while Rusty Wandall’s sound design adds non-musical elements to support the action on stage and Laura Skroska’s props underscore the setting.
Araoz’s interpretation features some especially convincing fight choreography orchestrated by Paul Dennhardt in the sword battles between Mercutio and Tybalt or Romeo and Paris. Joanna Battles’ text coaching involves some free-wheeling accent variations between various characters.
Araoz utilizes not only the expansive main stage, which includes the famous balcony at stage left, but also has her players roam through the aisles and even at one point has Romeo ascend a light tower well back in the audience. The expansion underscores the carefree approach to this overly familiar tale.
Her cast includes a number of local actors as well as performers established in New York. Reynaldo Piniella gives a laid-back, cocky portrayal of teen lover Romeo, in line with what a lad of his age and self-assurance might project. He shares an easy chemistry with Sigrid Wise, whose Juliet is headstrong and determined to follow her heart, no shrinking violet she.
Jane Paradise and Cherie Corinne Rice seem a bit too over the top in their portrayals of Juliet’s lusty nurse and Lady Capulet, respectively, but certainly relish their roles. This Lady Capulet dresses to the nines, for sure, and she’s definitely a party animal.
Michael James Reed brings a strong and commanding presence to the well-heeled Lord Capulet, who gets petulant when Juliet rejects his idea of an arranged marriage for her with the wealthy Count Paris.
Terrell Wheeler delivers perhaps the production’s finest performance as the well-meaning and noble Mercutio, underscoring his lines with effective gravity for his character’s situation. Antonio Rodriguez smartly conveys the high spirits of Romeo’s cousin Benvolio, while Pete Winfrey deftly handles the roles of both Prince Escalus and Count Paris.
Gary Glasgow delivers a smart and polished interpretation as the kindly Friar Laurence, while Patrick Blindauer is engaging as the genial servant Peter, an accordion-playing Chorus and an apothecary who dabbles in poison. Dakota Granados brings a fiery interpretation to the role of the mercurial Tybalt.
David Heron and Patrice Foster do well as Lord Montague and Lady Montague, Chris Ware is the tardy Friar John and Karl Hawkins plays Romeo’s servant Balthazar. Harrison Farmer and Esmeralda Garza complete the ensemble.
Araoz’s blended setting and styles offer a fresh look for The Bard’s enduring love story. The mostly pleasant results keep the two-act, three-hour presentation moving effectively enough, a different but effective rendition.
Play: Romeo & Juliet
Group: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
Venue: Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park near the Art Museum
Dates: Through June 24 (except Tuesdays)
Tickets: Free admission
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of David Levy