As one of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedies, any rendition of Romeo and Juliet must contend not only with the usual challenges in staging a production, but also with the weight of the play’s enormous legacy ― particularly that of the star-cross’d love of the titular couple. However, the Lantern Theater Company, with director Charles McMahon, ground their production in the social turmoil that generates the tragedy and offer a production whose whole is comprised of the strength of all its parts.
The cast’s most impressive attribute is their cohesiveness as an ensemble. In conversation as well as in more extended discourse, they have an excellent grasp of Shakespeare’s language and a particular talent for making it sound colloquial. Equally excellent is their non-verbal communication: Sean Lally as Romeo and Nicole Erb as Juliet anchor the complex set of relationships and loyalties in play among the characters. Their relative naivete and innocence is signaled by an easy affection ― particularly Juliet with her nurse (Ceal Phelan) and Romeo with Benvolio (Kevin Meehan), Mercutio (Charlie DelMarcelle), and Friar Laurence (Frank X) ― that the rest of the (older, jaded) characters always respond to but seldom imitate. This is taken to its extremity in the aloofness of the Capulets, whose impending fracturing is presaged by Lord (Leonard C. Haas) and Lady (K.O. DelMarcelle) Capulet’s inability to express genuine physical affection unless one of their number is dead (or seemingly so).
This strong group dynamic is augmented by the tightness of the casting, with seventeen roles divided among a cast of nine ― though several actors shine the brightest in certain roles. Frank X, also appearing as the Chorus, gives Friar Laurence an air of frustrated gravitas, his kindness and dignity desperately trying to keep up with his impetuous flock. Likewise, Charlie DelMarcelle, also playing the Prince, delivers an atypical Mercutio, whose apparent flashbacks during his Queen Mab speech suggest a character uncomfortably well-versed in bloodshed, eagerly trying to escape it in revelry ― but just as easily returning to it to challenge the upstart Tybalt. However, the most affecting performance belongs to Nicole Erb as Juliet, sweetly neurotic in her first romance ― then tragically so after the death of Tybalt, an event that clearly breaks her even as she struggles to stay alive and in love. Erb plays Juliet’s situation as a genuine dilemma, hesitating to choose a feigned or real death while still desperate to make such a choice and receive its bitter but guaranteed freedom.
Mary Folino’s costuming strikes an excellent balance between authenticity and accessibility, consistently reminiscent of the Renaissance while avoiding the inevitable distraction of period hose. The costumes are beautifully made, divided on a spectrum of class (rich brocades for the nobles, less ornate but still strikingly-textured cloths for the lower classes) and allegiance (tending to burgundy for the Capulets and navy for the Montagues), but with a realistic array of variation for individual temperament. They perfectly complement Meghan Jones's set design, which follows a similar aesthetic: warmly-lit Mediterranean buildings form the backdrop, plaster painted in Parma yellow, with burnt sienna curtains and realistic marble-looking capstones and stairways. The unique diamond-shaped layout of the theater allows for a satisfyingly complicated Escher-like design for the architecture, a gallery lining one wall and a portico leading up to the obligatory balcony on the other, with a plenitude of entryways, either visible or tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the architecture. The only misstep seems to be the one permanent piece of furniture, a bench planted in the corner downstage right, that has the dubious honor of allowing the actors to face away from both halves of the audience at once. Overall, though, both set and costuming serve to enhance the production with traditional ― but never boring ― designs, adding welcome detail without overwhelming the actors or the action.
Director Charles McMahon’s intention to highlight the severity of Verona’s internal strife becomes immediately apparent as the play opens not with the comic duo of Capulet supporters Samson and Gregory (of thumb-biting fame), but by a somewhat clunky montage of citizens attempting to go about their business without being waylaid by their enemies. Fortunately, this is expanded upon more organically by the cast’s performances, which make it clear how damaged the characters have become by their feud. Enhancing both the actors’ portrayals and the overall theme of the play are the fairly realistic fight scenes, choreographed by fight director J. Alex Cordaro. Tybalt (Jake Blouch) displays all the pompous showmanship assigned to him by Mercutio, who follows through on the subtext of his Queen Mab speech with an effective and dirty style worthy of a soldier. Romeo, meanwhile, rarely goes armed, and his slaying of Tybalt clearly owes more to his immediate rage than habitual violence. However, McMahon cuts Romeo’s encounter with Paris at the Capulet’s tomb, and deprived of the most senseless victim of the feud ― a man neither a Montague nor a Capulet, killed in self-defense during a misunderstanding by a suicidal Romeo who bears him no animosity whatsoever ― the play’s focus abruptly switches wholly over to the lovers’ personal story, rather than sharing time with the public ramifications of the social turmoil. Given McMahon’s successful emphasis of the feud’s effects throughout the production, it is a distinctly unsatisfactory ending to have this theme abruptly dropped.
However, for the most part McMahon delivers a well-crafted and consistent imagining of his vision, supported by the production design and enhanced by the cast’s energetic and nuanced performances. The Lantern Theater’s Romeo and Juliet successfully counterpoises the classic love story with the civil unrest promised by the very first mention of two households, both alike in dignity, and in doing so offers a refreshingly engaging interpretation.