Many directors have sought to keep this story alive for new audiences. We have seen a martial arts film starring Jet Li, a Broadway musical about gangs in West Harlem, computer-animated gnomes who sing Lady Gaga, and a zombie rom-com, to name comparatively few.
On the heels of last season’s post-apocalyptic Henry VI and Richard III, director Lucinda Danner Gainey reverses course, taking us back to the days of the Globe Theatre, with an open-air setting, sunlit performances, no mics, period weaponry, and Elizabethan garb.
Unlike most R&J stagings, Gainey opens with the entire population of Verona on stage. The company recite the under-rehearsed Prologue en masse, highlighting the plurals in the line “In fair Verona where we lay our scene.” Gainey illustrates the Prologue with a dumbshow; all portents are silently acted out.
The late-summer environment of Forest Theatre proved a fitting visual for an Elizabethan staging, bringing the audience into a cozy, stone amphitheatre seemingly tucked away within Sherwood Forest. The Meredith Chorale helped flesh-out Lucinda Gainey’s historical approach during the pre-show, but were out of place during the masked ball, where their somber music was mismatched with merry dancing. Staging actors amid the audience is ineffective when important business is happening on stage.
As in the 17th century, an “unplugged” outdoor performance is demanding on its actors’ lungs. The ovular stage at Forest Theatre provides a handful of magical pockets on the back wall where sound bounces toward the audience perfectly, unimpeded by university traffic. The steps just before the audience are an easy spot to play since the sound hits us directly, and I was relieved whenever this space was used.
There is only one place you really cannot be: center stage, facing forward. Any sound moving forward hits the proscenium walls and bounces right back onto the stage, leaving the audience to lip read. Alas, many lengthy conversations have been staged on a platform in this “dead zone.” A handful of players deliver lines into the wings, where giant openings in the walls allow the Bard’s prose to entertain the deer but not the patrons. Around half of the show was challenging to hear, with about 10 percent quite inaudible.
With regard to the central platform, it is better to forgo Juliet’s bed sheets than keep them present through the tomb scene.
As expected, under the direction of Jason Bailey and Heather J. Strickland, the fights are suspenseful and believable, with musketeer-like flair. The rousing opening fight (“Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?”) quickly becomes a community-wide melee with a frying pan-wielding cook for good measure. This unique choice continues the “city in turmoil” theme. I wish the sword fights were lengthier and more athletic, especially given the relative ease with which Tybalt and Paris were slain.
Christopher McBennett shows tremendous promise as Romeo. He is a wild pony that needs taming. He emotes easily, but needs guidance to find the nuance in Shakespeare’s language to avoid playing scenes as one-note. He is overburdened by numerous lines and would have proven successful in a less demanding part. I can see him tackling roles such as this if given sufficient direction.
As Juliet, McKenna Waldron has great potential, but needs direction. While she has mastery over her lines, they fly from her lips with little meaning behind them. This emerging actress may have also been distracted by the ill-fitting fashion show that befell her.
Michael Parker is a truly magnificent Capulet — the ultimate villain. Maegan Mercer-Bourne is an authoritative, if amusingly costumed, Prince Escalus, whereas George Labusohr makes an impact with his brief turn as the malevolent Tybalt.
Benjamin Tarlton is a wonderfully clownish Gregory; but his Count Paris, though a competent fighter, is too likeable. Rachel Pottern Nunn earns sympathy in her brief scenes as Balthazar, and Kimmy Fiorentino gives the production its most delightful performance as Peter the simpleminded servant.
Four young actors are employed to play pages/attendants to some affluent characters: Daniel Reese, Caroline Farmer, Graylyn Schieman, and a very gung-ho Eowyn Blum. Each works to form a bond with their master and help populate the city.
Director Lucinda Danner Gainey has made a handful of cuts to the text, as is warranted. Even with its tight clip, the show lasts 2.5 hours. Some cuts are welcome: a few lines from the Prince, some servant banter, the conversation between Capulet and his kinsman, and the Act II prologue, for example. The role of Romeo’s father, Montague (a fervid Doug Kapp), has been cut down, with some of his lines appropriately reassigned to Lady Montague (a dignified Ann Forsthoefel).
Other edits, excising lines from the middle of speeches, leave characters with unfinished thoughts. Friar Lawrence (an insightful, dynamic Loren Armitage) is sometimes taken from A to C, with no concern for B.
Fortunately, a flawless, vivacious Tara Nicole Williams ably fords her way across a river of carelessly discarded words that prevent the audience from understanding Mercutio’s already complex speeches. Romeo actually stops speaking mid-sentence at one point in the balcony scene.
Pacing would have been helped by larger — but deliberate — cuts to the balcony scene, Romeo’s redundant speeches, and some of the Nurse’s ramblings (though delivered skillfully by a warm and witty Laura Parker). The conclusion is that the play was cut with regard to length but not to Shakespeare.
Romeo and Juliet, as a play, has always strived to be a city comedy. Though the execution is messy, Gainey’s ensemble-driven staging and a company of fantastic comedic actors help it begin as one. But with two households — both alike in dignity — already ablaze, every quarrel and betrayal serves to fan the flames. When Mercutio — the play’s spirit — dies, Verona cannot last much longer. It is Verona that we cry for in Gainey’s production, not any individual character.
Shakespeare, via the Prince, gives us our marching orders: “Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things.”
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 4th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 3.5 of 5 stars): https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/romeo-and-juliet-underscores-how-generational-trauma-weighs-on-the-young-in-twelfth-century-verona-and-today/Content?oid=8515636. Sept. 27th mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/romeo-and-juliet/Event?oid=7796220.
Bare Theatre presents ROMEO AND JULIET at 2 p.m. Oct. 21 and 22 in the Forest Theatre, 123 S. Boundary St., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $19.62 ($11.34 students and $16.52 seniors and active-duty military personnel, including service fees.
BOX OFFICE: https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3093412.
INFORMATION: 919-322-8819 or email@example.com.
The Script: http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/romeoscenes.html (Shakespeare-Online.com, with the plays annotated by Amanda Mabillard).
Study Guide: http://www.bard.org/education/studyguides/romeo/juliet.html (Utah Shakespeare Festival).
William Shakespeare (English playwright and poet, 1564-1616): https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Shakespeare (Encyclopædia Britannica) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shakespeare (Wikipedia).
Lucinda Danner Gainey (Cary, NC director): http://www.lucindagainey.com/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/LucindaGaineyVO/ (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/lucindagaineyvo (Twitter page).
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor and director. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.