For American Stage’s 18th annual Shakespeare in the Park, a different approach was taken. Instead of turning A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1998) into a musical or The Comedy of Errors (2002) into a hip-hop stage show, the St. Petersburg-based theater company decided to go straight.
Romeo & Juliet has been turned upside down and twisted around so many times, that it is a refreshing experience to hear William Shakespeare’s words as they were intended, as opposed to coming from the mouth of a Jet, Shark or Leonardo DiCaprio.
While last year’s The Bomb-itty of Errors is preparing for a West End premiere, it’s probably safe to say this production’s cast and crew will end their run May 11.
However, that’s not to suggest the show isn’t worth seeing before then.
Although not as extravagant as Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 updated film version of Romeo + Juliet, this stage show still uses a gun posing as a sword and takes Mercutio to new hyper-kinetic heights, complete with tattooed-covered arms and chaps-laden legs.
In other regards, it seems as though director Andy Goldberg, who also directed Bomb-itty, took every step to avoid comparisons with Luhrmann’s lackluster film. Instead of a brooding, androgynous Romeo, Ryan Tresser is an alpha male whose sensitivity belies his handsome looks.
His one-dimensional whining through the first act, though, prevents him from engaging the audience and detracts from the chemistry between him and Charlotte Northeast, who plays Juliet.
As the other star-crossed lover, Northeast displays her command of Elizabethan language as she goes from giddy to forlorn with relative ease. Her Juliet is the most inviting performance of the show.
A close second is Ryan McCarthy as Romeo’s mate, Benvolio, who is normally underused and forgotten about even though he serves as liaison between Romeo and Lord Montague. In other versions, this character and other subplots are usually expunged, but here, McCarthy makes the most of his mostly sidekick role, especially in the background of scenes in which he doesn’t speak.
Two comic favorites are always found in Mercutio and the Nurse, however, in this production, Che Ayende and Bonita Agan, respectively, stay at one level — high — and their bawdy humor only hits when the staging allows for profuse movement not confined to the script.
One such example is Ayende’s bare-chested, devil mask-adorned Queen Mab speech during which he takes center stage and all attention is rightfully on him.
While the acting is hit or miss, the interpretation of Shakespeare’s most famous characters is spot on and his most well-known work is done justice.
As far as the outdoor setting, without the bells and whistles of a musical adaptation of Shakespeare to keep you from the natural atmosphere’s distractions, it can be a bit disconcerting paying attention to a deep drama when loud talking from across the street can be heard in the backdrop of the balcony scene.
But it’s certainly an enjoyable night — if not also a cold one on the waterfront — of theater, and it will certainly give fans of the tragic love affair a chance to see a faithful production up close and intimate.
Contact Will Albritton at firstname.lastname@example.org