In presenting the Texas Shakespeare Festival’s annual, five-show repertory, artistic director Raymond Caldwell insists on bestowing audiences with a rare treat. Whenever possible, he casts classically trained actors who respect Shakespeare’s verse. And in his current staging of Romeo and Juliet, he has cast actors in the title roles who appear to be young teens, just as Shakespeare intended. This festival’s creative team also imagines Verona as Shakespeare himself might have—a rough Renaissance-era village where a blood feud between the Montague and Capulet families imbues the air with prejudice and violence.
In Shakespeare’s opening scene, two pairs of toughs start a brawl, inciting Prince Escalus and his officers to invoke a heavy punishment for further disturbance of the peace. From this moment forward, a pall is cast upon the citizens of Verona. An aura of foreboding and suspense is ever-present, hovering in the air. In later scenes, Shakespeare skillfully undercuts this sense of doom with brilliant, bawdy wit combat between Benvolio and Romeo, of the Montague family, and their good friend Mercutio, a kinsman of the Prince, Verona’s highest official.
Unfortunately, director Kevin Otos seems reluctant to incorporate the shadow of doom in guiding the players during the production’s first half. This is a vital element in building suspense toward the tragic outcome, from the moment Romeo and Juliet embrace forbidden love. Consequently, early scenes such as the Capulet ball come across as excessively bright and comic, rendering them disappointingly flat. But in the show’s second half, this exceptional company delivers a much more cohesive and satisfying rendition of this beloved tragedy. Replete with classical architecture and costumes faithful to the period, this production is opulent in verbal artistry, scenery, and props.
Playgoers have grown as familiar with Romeo and Juliet’s speeches as they have with Hamlet’s soliloquies. This can be a blessing and a curse. Although presenters revel in Romeo and Juliet’s box office appeal, the play’s popularity challenges directors to keep the story fresh and immediate for each new audience. With some exceptions, this company’s careful attention to the verse offers listeners an opportunity to experience certain well-known speeches in a fresh light and hear less familiar lines with impressive clarity. A notable example of this comes through in the performance of Benvolio. Playing Romeo’s sidekick and a de facto peacemaker, actor J. Hernandez displays exceptional mastery in his command of the role’s gravity and humor. (Hernandez is equally impressive in the company’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost.)
As Juliet, Mary Candler’s graceful, mellifluous verse does great justice to this historic role and the play’s most important character. In Juliet’s first scene involving her mother (Lady Capulet) and the Nurse, her loyal guardian, Candler balances respect for both women with an honesty that serves her well when she faces the unwelcome prospect of arranged marriage and the emotional challenges of true love, loss, and, ultimately, escape through suicide. As Juliet’s loquacious Nurse, Meaghan Sullivan-Willis opens strongly in the signature “Come Lammas Eve” speech that occurs in the play’s third scene. Overall, the actor’s comic timing and knack for delivering bawdiness is well-developed. In creating this uniquely Shakespearean comic portrait, Sullivan-Willis presents a keen contrast to the young woman who will soon outgrow the need for her advice and counsel. (This actor’s performance as the maid Dorine in TSF’s Tartuffe is even stronger and more nuanced, perhaps as a result of a different director’s approach.)
As the electric Mercutio, Aaron White conveys tremendous intensity, although his tendency to telegraph the lascivious meanings in his Queen Mab speech is not to this reviewer’s taste. Nonetheless, White possesses an imaginative sense of Mercutio’s energy, and he entertains well in spite of distracting, unnecessary gestures.
Andrew Hutcheson is undoubtedly regal as Escalus, the Prince of Verona, and has been a hallmark of this company for two seasons in a row. In spite of his eagerness to walk when standing still would suffice, Kevin Barber delivers a measured performance as Friar Lawrence. Caroline Crocker provides a portrait of Lady Capulet that is gentle, nuanced, and authoritative. Ian Christiansen’s Paris, the noble who is promised to Juliet by her father, is well-executed.
In less impressive moments, this company, which is capable of soaring like a finely tuned Stradivarius, sounds off-key and bereft of careful direction. Ben Charles’s Romeo appears solid in early scenes, but he begins to lose his sense of purpose as the play progresses. In Romeo’s signature balcony scene, which occurs after he has crashed Lord Capulet’s masque and fallen in love with Juliet, Charles injects his lines with gratuitous humor and a sardonic tone that is wholly inappropriate. In later scenes, his performance could be improved by more thoughtful direction. On the whole, the director might place greater faith in the ability of Charles and the others to deliver their lines while standing still.
Film buffs familiar with the 1978 BBC-TV adaptation of this play will appreciate TSF’s loyalty to authentic period costume and the scenery of Renaissance Verona. Jesse Dreikosen’s scenes and Val Winkelman’s gorgeous wardrobes enhance this staging enormously. The lighting design of Tony Galaska also should be commended. By the third act, these visuals and the players’ ability to tone down the movement and gesturing allow this sad, beautiful tale to unfold into a double suicide of honest and powerful intensity.
The Texas Shakespeare Festival’s production of Romeo and Juliet plays through August 2 at the Van Cliburn Auditorium inside the Anne Dean Turk Fine Arts Center on the Kilgore College campus, Hwy. 259 between Oak Dr. and Brook St., Kilgore, TX 75662. Admission is $25; $20 for matinee and Sunday evening shows. Call the Texas Shakespeare Festival ticket office at (903) 983-8601 or visit www.texasshakespeare.com.