Two star-crossed lovers meet their fate in one of Shakespeare’s most recognizable and popularized tragedies as The Laurel Mill Playhouse presents Romeo & Juliet as a part of their Annual Summer Youth Shakespeare Theatre program. The ancient story is beyond familiar; two households at war for reasons no one can remember, boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl and boy and girl believe their love will survive their family’s feuding. And then everybody dies. This classic tragedy is imbued with the youthful spirit that many of the characters are meant to have as the show cast is comprised entirely of teenagers.
Set Designers Michael Hartsfield and Matt Thompson leave the city of Verona and all of its accompanying scenes up to the imagination; except for the signature balcony. Hartsfield and Thompson manage to create a romantic fantasy piece on the quaint stage, giving Juliet and Romeo every ounce of amorous ambiance needed for the epic balcony scene. With a stonewashed ivory appearance to the coloring, the balcony is highlighted with towering trellises entwined with flourishing ivy and blooming flowers, pinks and whites accentuating the scene to make it appear magical.
Director Michael V. Hartsfield had a mixed bag of successes and failures in regards to the production. Working with Combat Choreographers Chaz Atkinson and Jacob Rocco, the trio created several convincing fight scenes on stage for the various sword-fight brawls that break out frequently throughout the show. These moments were successful because they were blocked well with good use of the stage, and the actors moved about as if they were actually fighting with swords.
But there were other moments that were composed of poor blocking, leaving it difficult to see people on stage. Hartsfield clumps people in groups that make it difficult to see faces and gestures, as well as hear various ensemble members. This happens largely in small group scenes, like when brawls are broken up by the prince.
The major problem of the production is the inability to be able to hear many of the actors including the lead, Romeo (Jackson Sanchez.) All of the servants are very soft spoken and many of Shakespeare’s witty lines are lost. It is difficult to hear their comic banter on the streets when trading insults between Montague and Capulet families as well. And this problem, unfortunately, is the frustration of Sanchez’s portrayal of the love-struck teen. Many of his lines are whispered so softly that even those well-versed with the role miss what he’s saying. There are even scenes with both the Friar and Benvolio and Mercutio where it appears that the other characters are having a conversation with the air because you can’t hear Sanchez’s responses.
The volume and projection was not an issue for Juliet (Alexis Thompson). Thompson’s portrayal of the gooey-eyed young maiden was heard in every scene and filled with emotion. Her words are reinforced with deep emotions, her sorrows crying out to the audience clear as day. Thompson is one of the few actors on the stage who grounds herself deep in her character and really brings the iconic Shakespearean girl to life.
Judging by the performances of the three stellar performers in supporting roles, one might have renamed this production, “Lord Capulet, Mercutio, and The Friar Tell Verona’s Tale.” These three talented youths have a passion which ignites flames within their characters; each of these males driving the scenes they are in, and moving the play along to its grisly conclusion.
Lord Capulet (Mike Culhane) has a commanding presence on stage; his figure is presented with reverence and respect when he graces the others by simply appearing. The fluidity and immaculate articulation of each word allows Culhane to put deep intonations of emotion into his lines, deriving meaning from the Shakespearean vernacular. His breakdown over the loss of Juliet is harrowing; watching as he collapses to his knees, crestfallen, grief stricken; a moment that is truly worthy of the tragedy.
Friar Laurence (Jamal Barringer) is an equally impassioned character, exploding like a powder keg during his chastisement of Romeo after the lad’s banishment. He speaks slowly and clearly so that his words of wisdom are understood and he takes a stance upon the stage that makes him look fatherly in a nurturing sense. Barringer brings a sense of reason to the show with his performance of the holy man, and is an enjoyable part of the grim tale.
But the real star is Mercutio (Chaz Atkinson). Bright and sprightly this young actor takes to the stage with a vehemence and fierce attitude that makes the character rise above the others. Atkinson engages his body fully throughout the performance, each speech accompanied with the appropriate gesture or stance to more deeply express his thoughts and feelings. He rambles a glorious and grandiose rendition of the Queen Mab speech, letting each fantastical description of the fairy queen drip from his lips as he paints the picture for all to see. The most impressive thing about Atkinson is how well he truly understands the Shakespearean dialogue he’s reciting. He never misses a beat, and allows the appropriate sexual undertones to be highlighted with verbal accentuation. Atkinson is the thespian to watch, paying Shakespeare his due with his performance.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission.
Romeo & Juliet plays through July 15, 2012 at the Laurel Mill Playhouse – 508 Main Street in Laurel, MD. For ticket reservations, call the box office at (301) 617-9906. Tickets are available for purchase at the door one hour prior to show time – cash or check only.