We find ourselves in the midst of a heated exchange between the warring houses of the Montagues and the Capulets. A battle ensues and the hatred between the families escalates. The Prince of Verona parts the group with a promise of death to anyone who continues to war, and the parties retire amidst suppurate vows of revenge.
With the backstory established we move to the individual houses. Here we discover that Romeo is infatuated with a young woman whom he cannot woo, and Juliet is elated to be promised to Count Paris, a kinsman to the prince. To take his mind off the young woman Romeo’s good friends Mercutio and Benvolio suggest Romeo, a Montague, sneak into an opportune masked ball at the Capulet palace to determine whether his head and heart might be turned by another beauty.
Romeo encounters Juliet and the two fall in love. With the aid of Friar Laurence they secretly wed and in doing so unite the warring houses.
Before the unification is known Juliet’s cousin Tybalt encounters Romeo and Mercutio and slays the latter. Romeo reacts in haste and slays Tybalt, setting into motion a chain of events that culminates in a desperate and tragic attempt for the young lovers to remain together.
Pam Johnson’s minimal, adaptable set design with key location-distinguishing elements carries us effortlessly from place to place, and costume designer Nancy Bryant weaves a unique blend of contemporary capes, kimonos, and half vests with traditional Shakespearean costumes for subtle statement pieces such as Juliet’s (Hailey Gillis) ball gown topped with a circular headdress of silver stars reminiscent of a haloed Virgin Mary.
Though it is doubtful anyone would have appreciated watching an actor physically skewered during a performance, the opening sword-fight scene appears a bit awkward and tame, which to an observer only distractedly boosts the probability of impalement. In the second half of the play, however, the actors appear much more committed and rehearsed and the sword-fights more rhythmical and apposite in their execution.
It is always tricky delivering lines with strong cult value. Finding a way to deliver a classic line like, “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” or “What light through yonder window breaks?” is challenging. Gillis and Andrew Chown (Romeo) are impressive in turn as they tackle the inflexible dialogue.
Although Bard regular Jennifer Lines’s (Nurse) opening dialogue with Gillis is delivered rather quickly, her as-per-usual seemingly effortless flare brings such a relatable quality to her character that you can almost read the text in her movement and expressions, and as expected she steals almost every scene.
It is often possible to gauge the level of theatrical competence when an actor is faced with an unforeseen challenge in the middle of a performance. It is an especially onerous occasion to rise to when dealing with such challenges in a Shakespearean play. At the top of Act 3, Benvolio (Ben Elliot) tries to convince stubborn Mercutio (Andrew McNee) to retire from the heat of the day. Mid argument, McNee’s necklace breaks and falls to the floor. McNee stoops to pick it up but it slips through a crack in the floor and disappears. Without breaking character, and in perfect response to the dialogue spoken thus far, McNee raises his face to the sky and clenches his fists, incorporating the action into the scene.
Gillis hits her stride in the second half of the show and showcases her lovely voice. She is captivating and leaves us wanting more. Perhaps there will be such an opportunity when the cast transition to The Merry Wives of Windsor next week.
From the opening of the show, to the end of Act 2 at intermission, to the final scene, Collier and choreographer Valerie Easton work together to create transitions that add fluidity and rhythm to the story-telling process.
Romeo and Juliet is a classic play and a must see. A story that asks us to think about our choices, who we love, how we love, what it means to love, and what we want for our future and it is nice to be reminded that we are free to decide.
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