“Two households, both alike in dignity/In fair Verona, where we lay our scene/From ancient grudge break to new mutiny/Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean./ From forth the fatal loins of these two foes/A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life/Whose misadventured piteous overthrows/Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.”
Arguably the world’s most famous love story, William Shakespeare’s classic, Romeo and Juliet, has been performed for centuries and along with Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. Written sometime between 1591 and 1595 during the Elizabethan era, it had been adapted numerous times for stage, film, musical theatre and opera.
Over the years, producers and directors have taken some liberties by modifying the original play, and in one case, Georg Benda in the 18th century, removed much of the action and gave it a happy ending. The Spotlighters energetic production, directed by Lance Bankerd, did not veer from the original to the extent that Benda’s version did, but Mr. Bankerd, who is making his Spotlighters directorial debut, took a chance and inserted a wrinkle that will be discussed later.
…the presentation benefitted from amazing acting performances
The story of two young star-crossed lovers from rival families in Verona—The Montague’s and the Capulet’s—who were doomed by fate is a familiar tale to most. It starts off rather light-heartedly, but the plot takes a dark turn, especially in the second act. Romeo and Juliet features numerous iconic lines and scenes, such as the balcony and the final death scene.
A pivotal event is Romeo’s vengeful, guilt-laden slaying of Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, after she killed his friend Mercutio in a duel in which Romeo tried to intervene. Mercutio fought on Romeo’s behalf because he was put off by Romeo’s initial submission to Tybalt. As a result, Romeo is ultimately exiled from Verona under the penalty of death should he return.
The other key plot line is the Juliet’s Capulet parents attempting to arrange her marriage to Paris, which she is loathe to do. Juliet visits Friar Lawrence for help and offers her a potion to put her in a deathlike coma for “two and forty hours” the night before the wedding, and a message was supposed to be sent to Romeo to rejoin her when she awakes. Needless to say, the message never gets delivered.
Upon hearing of Juliet’s “death” from Balthazar, a servant in the Montague household, the distraught Romeo buys poison from an apothecary and visits the Capulet crypt where he is confronted by Paris. Romeo kills Paris in a duel, and believing Juliet is in fact dead, drinks the poison. Juliet awakens to find Romeo dead and uses his dagger to kill herself. The tragedies led the Montague’s and Capulet’s to ultimately reconcile as the play ends.
There is a tendency for cross-gender casting in Shakespeare’s plays since women weren’t allowed to perform during that time. All the female roles were originally played by boys. Subsequent productions regularly featured women playing the roles of men and vice versa. In this presentation, some women are assigned male roles—Lee Conderacci as Tybalt and Melanie Glickman as Count Paris—but the opposite did not apply. In these instances, both actresses played female roles.
When this is done, however, the original character’s gender is usually maintained with the acting and costuming coinciding. That Ms. Glickman plays a female Paris is problematic. Not that she didn’t perform well, but it introduces a twist in this presentation that doesn’t work.
Instead of Ms. Glickman playing the male role of Count Paris, Mr. Bankerd has her playing a female character and is attired accordingly. What this does is to allow the audience to believe that Juliet’s parents are pushing for a same-sex marriage, which, of course, would not have been realistic. Then there is the issue of male to female violence that occurs during the fight scenes, which in itself is controversial.
Notwithstanding that twist, the presentation benefitted from amazing acting performances. On top of the list is Patrick Gorirossi’s portrayal of Romeo. The young Mr. Gorirossi nimbly and decisively weaves around the stage as any teenager would to express his impassioned love for young Juliet. He expertly handles the challenge of a demanding script especially delivering rapid soliloquies, given that Elizabethan English is not the normal speech pattern the actors use in their everyday lives. But he as well as the rest of the cast pulls it off flawlessly, never flubbing a line.
This presentation was reviewed around the run’s midpoint. The stress of projecting Mr. Gorirossi’s voice (too much in a small venue such as Spotlighters) was taking a toll on his vocal chords as his speech was raw particularly in the second act. I hope he can resolve this situation during the play’s final two weeks. Nonetheless, his performance shines, and with his good looks and his obvious acting skills, he has excellent potential to succeed in theatre.
Juliet, played by Caitlin Carbone, is also proficient displaying a wide range of powerful emotions having appeared in other Shakespeare roles in her past. Ms. Carbone’s chemistry with Mr. Gorirossi’s Romeo is clear and convincing with her soliloquy on the balcony being superb.
Justin Johnson, who was excellent in the Spotlighters offering of Tea and Sympathy, excels as Benvolio, Romeo’s cousin and closest friend. He also possesses an ability for fluid stage movements, delivering comedic lines and expressive body language.
Adrian Graham-Chesnavage as Mercutio, another friend of Romeo also performed admirably. His animated style added energy to the play.
As Friar Laurence, Jeff Murray with his even-keeled demeanor is a calming force as a change of pace from the high octane passionate scenes. Another standout is Nicole Mullins as the Nurse, offering some comedic lines throughout, but she needs to project more at times.
Ruta Douglas-Smith is excellent as Lady Capulet. Her scene with Juliet threatening to disown her if she refuses to marry Paris is stellar.
The other cast members performed well. Tim Wolf as Montague, Joshua Thomas as Prince, and Anthony Chanov as Peter, Lee Conderacci as Tybalt and Friar John, all supported the leads effectively.
Credit the work of Tegan Williams, who as Fight Choreographer, allowed the actors to execute their dramatic, action-packed duels and fights flawlessly in limited space.
Performing in the confines of Spotlighter’s cozy, in-the-round venue is a challenge, but artistic director Fuzz Roark and his crew has always manages to overcome those physical limitations by imaginative staging and scenery especially in putting on large musicals such as Hello Dolly, Mame and Fiddler on the Roof over the past couple of years. This iteration of Romeo and Juliet succeeds in that the play is actor-focused; therefore, a small stage with simple scenery could work.
It’s not that the action is restricted to the main stage, however, which features a raised simulated stone rectangular water trough in the center. That prop also serves as a base of a bed in several scenes and a tomb where Romeo and Juliet end up on top as a result of their tragic suicides. At times, the actors execute scenes between the audience and the stage—a common occurrence in Shakespeare’s plays.
Set designer Alan Zemla also constructed a classic Elizabethan period set in the theater’s corner that represents Friar Laurence’s cell. And the famous balcony scene from where Juliet expresses her love for Romeo positioned above the main stage takes place in the opposite corner of the theater. It is used solely for that scene.
The professionalism of the production was aided by period costumes and wigs by Richard and Marie Bankerd of the House of Bankerd.
Percussionist William Georg plays a vital role in the presentation. He summons up no less than 12 instruments including a xylophone to play a mixture of Baroque-era and classical selections as interludes between scenes and as sound effects during the dramatic points in the play.
In all, a talented group of actors and a solid creative team under the direction of Lance Bankerd offers a somewhat different version of Romeo and Juliet, and is worth seeing, Shakespeare fans or not.
“For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
Running Time: About three hours with an intermission.
Romeo and Juliet runs through February 16 at the Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St., Baltimore, MD 21202. For tickets you may call 410-752-1225 or visit www.spotlighters.org.