Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is probably the most well known play of all time. The classic story of love that cannot be, has been produced by theatres throughout the world in numerous languages and has served as the theme of many contemporary works, including musicals such as West Side Story and Aida. This timeless story is relevant in all cultures and times. New World’s Shakespeare Company presented a fairly traditional version of this beloved classic with one major change: the part of Romeo is played by a female (Jill Stark). This change heightened the conflict in the plot and brought this classic into 2012, where this real conflict is ongoing in our society, especially here in Utah. The New World Shakespeare Company also donates proceeds from ticket sales to a local charity with each show that ties into the theme of the production. For Romeo and Juliet they are donating to The Bradford Garrison Memorial Account and The Utah Suicide and Crisis Hotline. To learn more about Bradford Garrison’s story, visit www.NewWorldShakespeareCompany.com.
Romeo and Juliet was an enjoyable production and this adaptation worked well, primarily because the leads were strong and did a nice job of carrying the show and creating a strong ensemble. Their training and experience shined through by adding depth to their characters and in creating powerful scenes. Romeo (Jill Stark) was very engaging to watch in each of her scenes. She handled the language excellently and her scenes were chalk full of discoveries and tactics which drove her objective. She was very believable and grounded and explored a wide variety of emotions, as well as taking risks. What stood out the most about Ms. Stark’s performance was her physicality. She had a slight masculine energy and was true to her character. A flip of her hair, a subtle gesture such as a raise of her eyebrow or a sly smile, helped in the storytelling and really sprung from internal choices. I was engaged from beginning to end with her performance and her physical choices revealed so much of her thought process and provided much clarity to her scenes. She was able to successfully marry the internal and external choices in a convincing fashion.
Ms. Stark was equally well matched by Juliet (Melissa Cecala). Ms. Cecala lit up the stage with grace and vulnerability and had great chemistry with Ms. Stark. I really appreciate the depth of her character and the youthful energy she brought out in Juliet. Her one scene that I especially enjoyed was the scene with her father, Capulet (DRU) and mother, Lady Capulet (Natalie Gerber) when her parents reveal that she is to be married to Paris (Scott Bahlman). This scene had great tension and she explored a wide variety of emotions-anger, fear, sadness and despair. She really took me on a journey in this scene and I felt for her.
My favorite character of the play was Friar Laurence (Alisa Harris). I looked forward to each of her scenes. Her impressive bio of over 40 years on stage and screen really shined through. She acted extremely well from beat to beat with lots of little nuances that really punctuated the storytelling and shaped the scenes. Her handling of the comedic moments and dramatic moments was executed with precision. She had such a natural delivery of the lines and was so fully engaged in each beat with clear intentions and thought process occurring on her lines, I often forgot that I was listening to Shakespeare. I hope to see her in future shows.
The Capulets, played by DRU and Natalie Gerber, were successful as Juliet’s parents. Capulet (DRU) was very convincing as Juliet’s father. Both his humor in the party scene, as well as his dramatic moments were excellently handled. I was very moved by his performance during the scene when he discovers his daughter’s death, and I felt the depth of his sorrow as he carried Juliet across the stage in his arms. Lady Capulet (Natalie Gerber) handled the humor and physicality of her character well. I wanted more from her in some of the dramatic moments. She was a little too cold as Juliet’s mother, and I wanted to see more of her love for her daughter. This would have strengthened her character and relationship with Juliet. We needed to see the internal conflict of her motherly love for Juliet and the resound support to follow her husband’s authority. I didn’t see this conflict, and as a result, the moment where she slapped her husband seemed unmotivated. More depth in her character would have strengthened her dramatic scenes.
Other supporting characters that need mentioning include the Nurse (Camilla Laib), Mercutio (Zach Reynolds), and Tybalt (Sam C. McGinnis). Ms. Laib as the nurse handled the comedy very well. She had great expressions and her reactions to many of the other characters were priceless. She wasn’t as strong in some of the more serious and dramatic moments as she was in the comedy. She fell a little flat and didn’t give us the depth and variety of tactics in these moments as she did in the comedic moments. Especially the scene during the discovery of Juliet’s death, we needed much more from her in that moment.
Mercutio (Zach Reynolds) was another highlight of the show. His relationship with Romeo added an almost flirtatious friendship that was fun to watch. I appreciated the many choices he made in each scene and the little bits he added to fill each moment. He used a variety of tactics and developed a clear relationship with each character he interacted with. Tybalt (Sam C. McGinnis) brought a great level of intensity in his scenes. The fight scene where he kills Mercutio and is ultimately killed by Romeo was especially powerful.
A few of the more minor characters only have a few scenes to really tell their story and contribute to the plot. In a way this is an even greater challenge than the principals, with only a few lines and scenes they have to be spot on with every line in order for their character to be successful. Romeo’s mother, Montague (Angelica Hope Hartman) played a saddened and distraught mother. But that is about all I got from her and I wanted more. She played a state of being in each scene and I didn’t really get any depth from her. Tears can be very powerful at the right moment, but what is so much more engaging and believable is to watch an actor’s struggle to hold back emotion or suppress the tears, and then see this emotion force its way out. Ms. Hartman came on stage already playing the state of being rather than allowing the discovery to happen in the moment (in acting this is often referred to as “playing the end,” and I wanted to see her journey). Benvolio (Eric Leckman) was convincing as the supportive and loyal friend to Romeo and Mercutio. This was good casting and Mr. Leckman added much to the story. Paris (Scott Bahlman) fell a bit flat as Juliet’s suitor. I didn’t get much more than a surface level understanding of his character and I wanted to see much greater depth to his character and to see clearer motivations in his scenes. The weakest character in the play was Prince Escalus (Tracy Hansford). She did not handle the language well, it felt very unnatural and the pace of her lines dragged. As the Prince, she needed to take command in each of her scenes. The energy really dropped when she was onstage and she pulled me out of the moment. She has the final lines of the show, and they weren’t as powerfully delivered as I wanted, which made the end of the show a little weak. I liked the music added by Abram (John Rowland) on the live guitar. This added to the storyline and enhanced the energy on stage.
The Director (Blayne Wiley) communicated his theme of “breaking barriers in order to avoid tragedy and how love is the answer in bringing people together” excellently. His use of costuming accented that in such ways as Mercutio’s shirt that was worn most of the show that said “Political Party”. He also created a timeless feel to the show by making the setting, time and place modern, but not specific. This worked in creating relevance of this story to all cultures and places. Such choices as using guns and cell phones for texting, but at the same time utilizing old fashioned knives and costuming for some of the characters made the setting abstract and not confined to a specific era or culture. I appreciated this choice and it strengthened the production. The stage was very challenging to work with. On the whole Mr. Wiley did a nice job of utilizing the space and creating levels and shaping each scene. Though some of the scenes on the ground level were lost to the audience when the characters went down to the floor, as well as the safety bars on the higher platforms blocked the faces of several of the actors when seated. Again the space was challenging.
There were a few elements that didn’t work as well. The song “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan was an appropriate choice for Juliet to sing at the party, but the show kind of froze during this song and didn’t progress the storyline. I wanted to see more from Romeo watching Juliet in this number and more interaction from the other actors on stage at this moment. There were also some inconsistencies in the usage of genders in the show that confused me. Sometimes Romeo was referred to as “he” and sometimes as “she”, or Friar Laurence was referenced to as “Father” and sometimes as “she.” I would have preferred the genders to be referenced correctly to the actor, but in any case it needed to be consistent throughout the play.
The biggest disappointment of the show was the set and technical elements. I would have liked to see the set more abstract. Perhaps “black box” style or a variety of non-specific shapes and objects. I could not figure out what the director was going for. The set did not enhance the show and added confusion. It was an array of houseplants (it looked like every cast member brought their living room potted plant), numerous lamps, a tent, a piano, and a lot of antique objects. This didn’t work and these set pieces were hardly used by the actors and they didn’t look good against the black walls. It seemed that they were just filling space. I would encourage a more abstract concept for the set and to scrap all the miscellaneous objects that just seemed to fill stage space. The lighting I have to say was the worst I have seen in a long time. Not only were there lots of dark spots and shadows, but also light cues were off virtually the entire show. Scenes started in the dark, spotlights moved around looking for the actors, blackouts occurred too early, and often there was a “popcorn effect” with lights popping on and off until the light board operator found the right cue. As this was opening night, I really hope that tomorrow is spent cleaning the light cues. They did detract from the performance.
The New World Shakespeare Company produced an excellent show for their debut performance. The leads were strong, and the actors came together to really tell a powerful story and share a great message with Utah audiences. The company also defined themself in a unique way by adding new types of shows to the theatre community in Utah. I look forward to seeing their future works. Romeo and Juliet is as relevant as always in 2012 and this type of adaptation can aid in helping society to overcome fears, prejudices, and intolerance towards others. Fifty years ago Romeo and Juliet were White and Black, a hundred years ago they were a Christian and a Jew, two hundred years ago they were a Noble and a Peasant, and now they are of the same gender. It will be interesting to see what Romeo and Juliet will be in the next fifty years as our society continues to progress and accept others in spite of their differences. Love does have the power to break down walls and bring people together.
Romeo and Juliet plays August 15-18 at 7:30 pm at the Murray Theatre, located at 4959 South State Street in Murray. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the door or online at www.NewWorldShakespeareCompany.com.