‘Romeo and Juliet’ at National Players At Olney Theatre Center by Jessica Vaughan

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The 8 actors in Romeo and Juliet by the National Players, under the direction of Jason King Jones, attack this play like it was written yesterday and no one in the world has seen it before. It is one of the best productions of this play I’ve ever seen.

Why? First some background: The National Players, currently run by General Manager Kevin Hasser, Artistic Director Martin Platt, and Managing Director Amy Marshall, have been performing for 64 years. For 9 months every year, 8-10 young actors tour the country performing two pieces of classic theater. Many of this year’s cast have just graduated from university theater programs around the country. The Players always perform one Shakespeare and one other play each year. This year they will also take on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The actors play all the roles – on and off stage – running lights, sound, and set changes as well as their lines. They are based in Maryland at the Olney Theater Center, a beautiful, sprawling 14-acre campus with several indoor and outdoor stages just about 15 miles from DC.

They always do a couple of free performances for locals before getting the show on the road. One thing to note is that while normally these performances are outside, due to weather and construction, they take place indoors at the Historic Theater. Their mission is to bring theater to schools, colleges, and communities who are far away from or normally can’t afford live theater. In addition to the plays, they also do acting workshops, playwriting classes, interviews, and various other interactive offerings when they are on the road. With this show, they have set the bar remarkably high.

Ian Kramer (Romeo/Squealor). Photo courtesy of National Players.

Director Jason King Jones, aided by Assistant Director and Dramaturg Meghan Twible, deserves much of the credit for mounting an intense, funny, tragic, real production. It feels like the first time because they have made every line fresh. These words are so familiar, but in the actors’ hands, “a rose by any other name” is not just a clever saying but the deep ambivalence of a young girl drawn to a man she knows she can’t have…and still wants. The balcony scene, when the lovers first meet, is staged so well with the minimal set, and like I said, every word is fought for and real. I’ve heard the words a hundred times, but listening to this performance, I just kept thinking of how good Shakespeare really was at this and how good the actors are for working the iambic pentameter for everything its worth.

You know right off the bat that this is a modern setting as fluorescent lights mounted on canvas squares flash to a techno score when the house lights go down. Gary Slootskiy did the lighting and I did not know you could wring a tragic mood from fluorescents. Amy Altadonna built the sound design – which includes that pounding music and the various beeps of smart phones as, for instance, Lord Capulet texts his instructions and Benvolio phones Romeo in his exile.

Jason King Jones makes great use of the set design by Cristina Todesco. The canvas squares rotate to conjure a courtyard and a church and several different houses. Two low platforms provide all of the rest of the furniture. The main dance and a few other key moments are played out in silhouette behind these screens.

The fights look more like a dance than a brawl, but fight choreographer Casey Kaleba did a good job turning fencing contests into modern knife fights.

With the monochromatic, minimalist set, the costumes, designed by Pei Lee, have a lot of work to do and they deliver. Neon pink and blue separate Montague from Capulet and the costumes themselves are modern and perfectly fit each character. By modern, I mean today’s youth fashion taken to the extreme. They wouldn’t have looked out of place at the recent Olympic Ceremony’s celebration of British punk culture with ripped tights and neon lace. Mercutio in particular looks fantastic with neon gloves, a sleep mask, and a kilt.

The 8 actors are all ridiculously talented and it felt like they’ve been tackling the Bard all their lives. Each more than deserves a shout out. Zach Bryant plays Lord Capulet and Friar John. As Capulet, his cruelty and his torture are intense without tipping into dramatics. Katie Lock plays both the nurse and Lady Montague and the vast difference between those two characters display her range. Matt Lytle (The Prince and Mercutio) gave an intense, hilarious, tragic performance, growing into his crazy costume without getting swallowed by it. Justin Weaks (Tybalt and Paris) died beautifully twice.

Britian Seibert (Juliet/Muriel). Photo courtesy of National Players.

Dan Hasty (Friar Lawrence and Peter) was a particular stand out, if such were possible. You can tell how much he loves the words themselves and is a very strong actor. Sydney Lemmon, in a gender-bending turn as Lady Capulet and Benvolio, gives a unique and fascinating life to two characters that normally don’t receive much of the spolight. Britian Seibert plays Juliet with an intensity I’m not sure how she will sustain over the 9 months they are on the road and, finally, Ian Kramer (Romeo) delivers a superior, pitch-perfect performance. Their chemistry together is a joy to watch.

I find myself jealous of the people in some of the communities and schools they will travel to who may see this as their first Shakespeare play. There is not a stuffy costume, stiff actor, or incomprehensible word to be found. It’s gripping and alive and even though everybody knows the end, as I watched these characters fight every moment for a different fate, I couldn’t help wishing it was going to turn out different this time. Many have criticized or dismissed Romeo and Juliet (myself included, I admit) as a teenage love story or a melodrama, but, though the setting could not be more modern, the National Players have managed to take this play back to its roots as the soul-wrenching tragedy, pointed social commentary, and ageless love story that it is.

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, with a 15 minute intermission.

Romeo and Juliet plays August 24 and 25, 2012 at the Olney Theater Center – 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. Seating is general admission and free. No tickets are required. Just show up.

LINK

The National Players’ website.