Romeo and Juliet, set in Italy circa 1948, proves William Shakespeare’s story of star-crossed lovers is timeless. Sally Boyett, Founding Artistic Director of Annapolis Shakespeare Company, has perfectly cast the individual roles and directs them into a cohesive ensemble that is simply captivating.
Olivia Ercolano delivers remarkable transformation as Juliet goes from innocence then to anguish after instantly falling for Romeo. Ercolano’s beautiful doe eyes spark upon first glance at her soon-to-be husband. Her time spent with Romeo is enchanting as they touch hand-to-hand, exchange sweet kisses, and their banter is delivered with laughter. Ercolano’s petit figure has her poised as a young lady. However, as time marches so hurriedly and lives are taken, her smile is wretched with pain, her lyrical words are gripped with rage, and her body shakes as tears stain her cheeks. Ercolano shares Juliet’s pain on a very convincing level.
Renata Plecha is outstanding as Juliet’s Nurse. Her diverse acting talents transcend the stage with witty wordplay and strong body language. When Mercutio comes on to her, she holds her own and abruptly pushes him away (though that would be an interesting match). She is a champion for Juliet and her Romeo, despite her perspective on love and romance. Plecha also assumes the role of Lady Montague.
Brendan McMahon gives a fine performance as young Romeo, who is both innocent and flighty about love. His friends jest about love and while Romeo goes along with their repartee, he wears his heart on his sleeve. Madly in love with Roselin, his love dramatically shifts when he sees a masked Juliet at the Capulet’s masquerade party. Googly-eyed, as if he is walking on air, McMahon demonstrates Romeo’s confidence as he slings his jacket over his shoulder, like Gene Kelly when he is singing in the rain. Unfortunately, there is an underlying anger that pulses through his veins and comes to fruition as he takes the life of Tybal and then later, Paris. McMahon has Romeo staggering about in disbelief then is later found a fetal mess at Friar Lawrence’s place. In the end, Romeo’s impulsive behavior costs him.
Switch blades replace swords in this production and Brian Keith MacDonald’s Mercutio fights with an edge as he clenches his jaw and contorts his body. His bruiting facial expressions are intimidating as he welcomes a fight. A notable resemblance to Billy Zane (Titanic), MacDonald masterfully presents a character that is as crass as he is charming. His high energy is infectious as dialogue rolls off his tongue with lightning speed. Additionally, MacDonald triples his roles. As Balthasar he plays loyal servant to Romeo, who unfortunately delivers the wrong news of Juliet’s death. As Prince Escalus, he tries to rule with an iron fist, threating punishment, but he is as unsuccessful as Benvolio and bringing about peace.
Rob Schumacher brings an intense level of anger out in Tybalt, who is determined to bring any Montagues to their demise. He furrows his brow and delivers his lines with a terse tone, all the while baiting Romeo and Mercutio. As the Apothecary, he is sneaky as he bends his morals to acquire riches.
James Carpenter’s Benvolio is an ineffective peacemaker among the feuding men and is loyal to Romeo, showing concern of his friend’s unhappiness. It is Carpenter’s charming good looks that bring Benvolio forth as a likable character. He talks with his hands, using gestures to encouraging goodwill among the Montagues and Capulets.
Tony Tsendeas’ Friar Lawrence is frantic and it shows with trembling hands and his disheveled appearance. His hair is messy and is his robe is unkempt. Like the Nurse, Friar is an advocate for Romeo and Juliet, showing his compassionate side. He launches a good plan that is not executed well for the two lovers to be together. Tsendeas also plays Montague, who shows genuine concern by inquiring with Benvolio as to how he can help with his son’s gloomy disposition.
As Paris, Johnny Weissgerber is stylish and even refined as he converses with Capulet about his and Juliet’s [arranged] marriage. He is respectful of Juliet but once engaged, he becomes loathsome with his bullying words. He also doubles as Abraham, a supporting character that entices fighting with Montagues.
Rob McQuay’s Capulet has a gentle heart and means well as long as his family is following his rule. At first, he is full of exuberance as he plans the masquerade party but thereafter, when Tybal is killed, his anger swells. Fast and furious, McQuay holds nothing back in his dialogue as he reprimands Juliet.
Emily Karol is stunning as Lady Capulet. Dressed to the nines, she is the epitome of elegance. Karol gives a strong performance with eloquent enunciation, holding her head high, and walks with graceful composure yet Lady Capulet does not hold her own as a wife or mother and relies on Nurse for guidance while constantly kowtowing to her husband’s wishes, even if he is wrong.
Rounding out the cast is Bill Dennison who plays such important supporting roles as Gregory, Servant, and Friar John. As Gregory, he is loyal to the Capulets for he hates the Montagues. Gregory along with Sampson (Brendan McMahon’s double role) successfully aggravates a Montague entourage into a confrontation. Both Dennison and McMahon’s various roles help move the action forward.
Jack Golden designed a minimal set comprised of “garden” benches that when strategically positioned on stage represents the city square, the ballroom, and of course, Juliet’s balcony. The upstage wall is four windows indicative of Italian architecture and illuminated from behind. Lighting Designer Adam Mendelson creatively uses gobo (a lighting stencil) to cast patterns on the stage floor, such as a stain glass cut out for Friar Lawrence’s abode.
Sally Boyett assembled the costumes from various resources. In this production, the men friends of Romeo and Juliet’s relatives wear trousers and shirts; some don a vest or a cap. Those in higher social standing wear suits with ties, like Capulet, Romeo and Paris. Romeo’s ensemble is comprised of a tan suit, pin-stripe shirt, a tie, and a sharp dark blue sweater vest. Mercutio’s jacket is short-waisted giving him a more gangster-like appearance.
Juliet transitions from an all-white dress, to a cream-colored silk robe and then wears a beige skirt and a simple white blouse with sandals. Nurse wears a billowy blouse and calf-length skirt and is practical in her black kerchief and shawl. It is Lady Capulet presents a glam-fest in her shimmering green dress and satin hat of the same color. As the play progresses her outfits become tame, especially when she appears in a dark beige suit with a tiny check pattern.
“For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” There is no debate, Romeo and Juliet is indeed a tragedy, but it is also a brilliant love story. The anger is as intense as the passion as each character struggles or cheers for Juliet and her Romeo.
Annapolis Shakespeare Company gives a fast-moving updated production of Romeo and Juliet that is beyond magnificent.
Running Time: 2 hours with a 15- minute intermission.
Romeo and Juliet plays through May 29, 2016 at Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s ASC Studio 111 – 111 Chinquapin Round Road, Suite 114, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 415-3513, or purchase them online.