Review: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ by Baltimore Shakespeare Factory

Not to be confused with the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival (1993-2011), the current “BSF” – Baltimore Shakespeare Factory – has another hit on its hands with their new production of Romeo and Juliet directed by Anne Hammontree. Presented in the Great Hall at St. Mary’s Outreach Center (also the home of the original BSF), this show is a rollicking good time as well as a delight for Shakespeare purists.

Kate Oelkers (Romeo) and Ronnita Freeman (Juliet) in Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's production of 'Romeo and Juliet.' Photo by Will Kirk.
Kate Oelkers (Romeo) and Ronnita Freeman (Juliet) in Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s production of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Photo by Will Kirk.

Audience immersion is noticeably trendy nowadays, and with good reason: companies that do it well find their patrons energized, engaged, and likely to become subscribers. In BSF’s case, the effect is just as strong while the principle is not so new: we are told during introductory remarks that the presentation will be participatory, as in Shakespeare’s era. The company employs “universal lighting,” meaning that the stage lighting and house lighting are one and the same, and don’t change throughout the course of the evening. Nearly as much of Hammontree’s action takes place outside of the stage – in the aisles, and even in any of the front rows on all three sides of the thrust – as on the stage itself. And as we’ve also seen with other local productions of the Bard in recent years, the cast serenades the audience during pre-show and intermission with songs that are relevant in theme, yet current (kudos to Music Director Kristen Cooley). No recorded sound is used.

Designer Kendra Shapanus’ costume changes are limited to the addition or subtraction of a cape here; a shawl there. The set is fixed, with only the occasional on-and-off use of a demilune and stool serving as furniture. Overall these elements make for a highly enjoyable experience for the audience, and extra challenges for the director and cast: unable to “lean on” modern production design elements to augment the action, this group knows that all of the burden rests squarely upon them, and they deliver with gusto.

Cross-gender casting is employed here, as both of the titular characters are portrayed by women. Ronnita Freeman (Juliet) and Kate Oelkers (Romeo) are explosive in their performances. Each of them captures brilliantly the urgency and simultaneous innocence that these roles require. Autumn Koehnlein brings very strong effort as Paris, despite having next to no voice at her disposal during opening weekend. Audiences for the rest of the run will enjoy her full-throated work as Juliet’s wannabe bridegroom.

As with most good productions of this play, the Nurse (Holly Gibbs) steals many of her scenes. Gibbs’ comedic sense is natural, and her mastery of prop gags (watch what she does with a fan) on top of that add up to the best Nurse we’ve seen in Baltimore since AXIS Theatre’s Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning, Juliet. As Benvolio, Joshua Street’s performance is both subtle and dynamic; it packs a wallop. Impressive, too, is Justin Johnson as Mercutio. Never before has JJ’s “go big or go home” acting style served a role or a production so delightfully well. His work here alone is worth the price of admission.

Dean Carlson, Chris Cotterman, Conrad Deitrick, Abigail Funk, Ayesha Gowie, Grayson Owen, Julie Press, and MJ Smith inhabit the rest of Romeo and Juliet’s characters, and together form a richly cohesive ensemble, assistant directed by Sian Edwards, with Alex L.S. Perry as stage manager.

Fight Director Lewis Shaw tackled an unenviable task, choreographing battles which most in the audience know are coming before they happen. His work doesn’t disappoint. The sword fights between Mercutio and Tybalt (Owen), then Tybalt and Romeo, serve as a dazzling climax to the first act. The work is believable, yet framed in a perfect version of theatricality that doesn’t try to hoodwink us, but instead brings us along for the ride. Intimacy Director Emily Sucher also achieves a wonderful realism with her work.

Running Time: 138 minutes, with one intermission.

Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s production of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare appears through July 21 at the St. Mary’s Outreach Center – 3900 Roland Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland. For tickets call (410) 662-9455 or purchase online.

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