ROMEO AND JULIET: Young Love and Old Problems
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
Produced By: Quill Theatre
At: The Leslie Cheek Theater at the VMFA, 200 N. Boulevard, RVA 23220
Performances: April 6-22, 2018
Ticket Prices: $35 Adults; $30 VMFA Members; $25 RVATA Members; $20 Students
Info: (804) 340-0115/340-1405 or quilltheatre.org or http://reservations.vmfa.museum/state/Info.aspx?EventID=128
Millions of students read Shakespeare every year, and Romeo and Juliet is one of the more popular plays. Most people are probably familiar with the name, and many probably think they know the story. But Romeo and Juliet was meant to be seen, not just read, and this Quill Theatre production makes Romeo and Juliet accessible to today’s audience. It’s not that the language has been changed, but rather that director James Ricks and his very solid cast reveal the basic humanity of the work: the artistry; the layers; the love; the senseless feud; the disconnect between parents and children; grief; and the consequences of not listening to one another – at any age and in any language.
Nate Ritsema, in his first show with Quill Theatre, is a young and earnest Romeo, full of energy and enthusiasm. He is well cast for the part, having made his professional debut in 2016 with the Virginia Shakespeare Festival production of Romeo and Juliet. Liz Earnest, recently seen in the tense drama I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, at TheatreLAB is hardly recognizable as the same person as Juliet. Earnest’s Juliet is unmistakably a teenager. Her mother and nurse make a point of emphasizing near the top of the first act that she is just weeks away from her fourteenth birthday, and her impatient response to her mother’ bidding, her naivete about love, and her lightning quick changes of emotion further attest to her youth. It’s interesting, on some level, that Earnest’s last two roles are as a daughter seeking the approval of a strong and capricious father figure; the outcomes are vastly different.
Matt Shofner is hilarious and more than a little over the top as Romeo’s close friend Mercutio. Of course, he gets killed off in the first half, and no one quite fills his shoes for the remainder of the play. Other humorous moments are provided by Melissa Johnston Price as Juliet’s nurse. Price momentarily steals the show in her big scene with Juliet and her mother as she runs on at the mouth, barely stopping to catch her breath, and starting in again every time Lady Capulet thinks she has found an opening to talk to Juliet. Price’s counterpart is Bo Wilson, making his acting debut with Quill Theatre, where he has more often been credited as writer or director. Wilson was delightful as Friar Lawrence, who unwittingly initiates much of the trouble by marrying Romeo and Juliet against their feuding families’ wishes.
Seen in terms of today’s news, Romeo and Juliet has bullying and gang violence (i.e., the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues), sexual harassment (Lord Capulet’s treatment of his daughter Juliet and his wife Lady Capulet), suicide (both Romeo and Juliet ), drug abuse if you count poison as a drug), and child marriage (Juliet’s marriage to the also-teenaged Romeo, and her father’s plan to marry her off to the obviously adult Paris, played by Axle Burtness). I’m sure there are some other hot topics in there but that’s plenty to start a discussion or two or three. Lady Capulet (Irene Kuykendall) is elegant and obviously oppressed, while Lord Capulet (Colt Neidhardt) comes across as something of a despot not deserving of our sympathy. Other than the lead characters of Romeo and Juliet and the supporting characters of Nurse and Friar Lawrence – and Mercutio – most of the other characters seem intentionally underdeveloped. The reason may be found in the title of the play. It is noteworthy that I attended a preview – prior to opening night – and found few if any of the quirks and rough edges that often mark an opening night. Actors, lights, sounds, fight scenes, all ran remarkably smoothly and aided in the audience’s suspension of belief and overall enjoyment.
Fight choreographer Aaron Orensky had plenty to keep him busy, as the play opens with a brawl and there is swordplay throughout. Costume designer Cora Delbridge created some brilliant designs and some that seemed rather predictable; I think the goal was to strike a balance between traditional and contemporary. If so, some costumes achieved this more than others. Some open sleeves, for example, appeared stylish and elegant and others just looked ripped and torn. Reed West’s set has simple, clean lines – a balcony, some steps, a bier that serves as a bench, a bed, and a funeral slab – and is given more depth by Michael Jarett’s lighting. All-in-all I somehow enjoyed this production much more than I expected and relished the challenge of comparing traditional versus contemporary themes, thanks to Dr. Matteo Pangallo’s “dramaturge essay” that twice asked why we continue to read and perform Romeo and Juliet couched in terms of older generations that fail their youth and confronting the constraints of the past.
Romeo and Juliet runs for just over two and one half hours, with one intermission, through April 22 with a preview on April 5 and opening night on April 6, Fridays and Saturdays @7:30pm, Sundays @1:30pm. Sunday performances will be followed by a talk with the cast and director.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Quill Theatre