Two star-crossed lovers still don’t manage to get uncrossed this time around, unfortunately, but it’s good to watch them try.
What better complement to February’s focus on love than Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? Actually, I can think of a few, namely love stories that don’t end with a bunch of teenagers offing themselves in a crypt (wait, sorry, did I need to warn you before that spoiler?). But, though a tragedy, the play does delight the ears with a whole lot of the Bard’s best and most famous sweet talk, and there’s always the added benefit of being able to reach over and squeeze your play-going partner and whisper, “I’m so glad our parents aren’t trying to kill each other.”
And, of course, if you’re single, it’s the perfect opportunity to remind yourself that love sure causes everyone a heap of trouble.
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Richmond Shakespeare continues to make good use of the Gottwald Playhouse at CenterStage, which provides just the right neutral environment to satisfy director Grant Mudge’s creativity. With Romeo and Juliet, Mudge took his cues from the resources Shakespeare would have had, a limited but versatile set, stripped down lighting (think “daytime” and “nighttime”), and costumes that hail more from Elizabethan England than they do from the then city-state of Verona.
As Mudge points out in his notes, this type of setup puts the responsibility with the performers to orient the audience so that they’re aware of each scene’s setting. Clear delivery of each line is a must, no matter how familiar you are with the story, so that you’re not wondering why Mercutio and Tybalt are dueling in Juliet’s bedroom. The actors don’t disappoint, and Romeo and Juliet themselves (Jeffrey Cole and Liz Blake White) are energetically sweet and share both a warm chemistry and a clear love of the material. It’s habit, I guess, to expect Jules to be a little more demure and unsure of herself (she IS thirteen, after all), but White’s more confident, sassy version was refreshing, even if it did take some getting used to. Cole played a nicely lovesick Romeo, who mopes about so much you sort of want to punch him, and avoided going in the “tortured soul” direction in favor of one that oscillated gently between cheerful and despondent. Both, er, teens gave the impression of being well-adjusted youth who have been unlucky enough to be surrounded by murderous family members and friends, all of whom are about to be taught a big, big lesson, one way or another.
Ryan Bechard was every inch Tybalt, the “prince of cats,” from his first nonchalant saunter onto the stage; and both Capulets (Foster Solomon and Shirley Kagan) put their whole beings into thoroughly impressive performances, but, as is often the case, you find yourself wishing that Shakespeare had found a way to include both Mercutio and the Nurse in every scene. Thomas L. Cunningham as the Nurse is as amusing as Joey Ibanez’s Mercutio is captivating. Because of some strange quirk in the human psyche that I won’t pretend to understand, what would be funny when played by an older lady is absolutely hilarious when a man takes on the role. Cunningham was at times so convincing that I found myself forgetting his gender entirely and completely accepting that he was, indeed, an eccentric female shrieker.
If the Nurse kept the audience laughing, Mercutio kept them holding their breath. Ibanez nails each line, spitting out plagues on houses and making sure we never miss the meaning of each ribald joke as he slides around the stage like he owns the place. And he does, in this show at least. Though his violent death marks the beginning of a lot of gasp-inducing stage dueling, the show lacks a certain amount of electricity after Mercutio bites the dust.
The first thing my husband and I said to each other, after we finished whispering about how we’re glad our parents aren’t trying to kill each other, was that we found the set a little distracting. While the idea was to go minimal, we actually found it not minimal enough and felt that a barer stage (or a neutrally draped one, as in December’s The Winter’s Tale) would have served the show’s purposes better.
We did, however, think the spare lighting was pretty neat as well, and we certainly applauded the gender-shifting, as well as solid directing that worked hard to make the audience feel as if it were part of the show. Luckily, we weren’t a big enough part of the show to get felled by a stage sword or drink some bright blue poison, but the production did a good job of making us worry a little bit about the possibility.
Romeo and Juliet runs through February 26, showing Thurs.-Sat. at the Gottwald Playhouse at CenterStage. Each show begins at 8:00pm, which is great, because it means you get to have dinner first, but we recommend eating some superfoods, as it is a rather long production. Visit richmondshakespeare.com for tickets.