By Ashley Ramsey
Arguably, William Shakespeare’s most famous play, Romeo and Juliet, has been told countless times and in countless different ways. From the song and dance of West Side Story to the visually stunning film version by Baz Lurhman, the tale of the two doomed star-crossed lovers has found its way into popular culture in many different forms. Utah Shakespeare Festival’s production of Romeo and Juliet will give you a new perspective to a classic tale of woe.
Set in Verona, our story begins as the household servants of the Montague’s and Capulet’s discuss their roles in the ancient feud. As the servants exchange insults back and forth, a fight breaks out in the marketplace, which grows to include the heads of each household in the chaos. Escalus, the prince of Verona (Taylor Harris) having had enough of the feud decrees that the next member of either household to start a fight will be put to death. Lady Montague (Susanna Florence) bemoans the events of the day and is grateful that their son Romeo was not there to be amongst the fight. Romeo (Shane Kenyon) had resigned himself to a life of loneliness and depression due to his unrequited love by his heart’s desire, Rosaline. Romeo’s friend, Mercutio (Jeb Burris) suggests the two young, virile lads attend the party where they know Rosaline will be, even if that party is hosted by the family of their enemy, the Capulets. As Romeo and his friends arrive at the party, Rosaline is quickly forgotten as Romeo is smitten with Juliet (Betsey Mugavero.) As the party ends, both Romeo and Juliet devise a plan to be married in secret the next day. Shortly after the wedding, Tybalt (Quinn Mattfeld), cousin to the Capulets, seeks out Romeo for disgracing his family’s house by attending their party. Romeo, in an attempt to calm the anger of his soon-to-be new family member, unintentionally causes Tybalt and Mercutio to duel. As Mercutio is slain by Tybalt and Tybalt slain in revenge by Romeo, the two newlyweds now must navigate the difficult roads of banishment, promises of marriage, and loyalty to family while trying to save their love.
Romeo and Juliet is performed on the outdoor Englested Shakespeare Stage on the SUU campus. Sets are very minimal and move on and off stage on flats when they are needed. Scenic Designer Scott Davis’ design is simple and clear with the one of my favorites being Friar Lawrence’s cell with so many odds and ends and trinkets. It is a great representation of the slightly odd and mysterious Friar. Bill Black’s traditional Elizabethan costume design is beautiful and lends itself to the tragic beauty of the piece. Dressing the Capulets in shades of red and the Montagues in shades of blue makes it easy to distinguish the two households, especially in the opening fight scene when the characters are newly introduced. Robert Westley’s fight choreography is exciting and well-executed by the actors. The fight between Romeo and Tybalt is so fast-paced and so intense, it took my breath away as it felt so real.
Romeo and Juliet is a companion production to Shakespeare in Love, and plays in repertory with many of the same performers in their counter-piece roles. Mugavero’s Juliet is sweet and innocent. Her performance weaves together the complexities of a teenager in love, but also a teenager experiencing grief and heartache. Mugavero’s delivery of the language is smooth and she is able to play with timing to deliver some great comedic moments as well. Mugavero’s Juliet and Kenyon’s Romeo share a nice chemistry that showcases young, passionate, new love. They both infuse a youthful excitement into their roles that really does give a different feel to the characters than I have seen in other productions of Romeo and Juliet. The roles can often feel like adults playing children, but not in this production. Keyon also plays incredibly well off of Burris’ Mercutio and the scene in the marketplace with the Nurse (Leslie Brott) is full of teenage boy mischief and well-executed dirty jokes. Burris brings a nice depth to Mercutio that leaves you wanting to know more about him. We know very little about his character and Burris adds additional layers that leave you wondering what pain has his character suffered that shaped him into the sarcastic showmen that we know. Paris (Brandon Burk) is played with a gentle sincerity that is often lacking from the role. Burk also appears to be younger and closer to Juliet’s age than most productions I have encountered. In the final scene when Paris requests to be laid next to Juliet, there is beautiful sincerity in it that left me feeling heartbroken for Paris, as he really did care for Juliet.
Director J.R. Sullivan gives a nice flow to the show, allowing the audience to feel the strong emotion that this play showcases. Romeo and Juliet is an exploration of grief and the hardening of hearts and this is showcased very well in this production. Sullivan’s casting is near perfection and allows the audience to be fully enthralled in the piece as each actor lives in their character. Sullivan’s blocking fits the space well and he utilizes the audience space as a way to tie them into the action.
I have seen Romeo and Juliet many times and this production spoke to me on a different level. There is so much death and heartache in this piece, but what struck me this time was the lack of being allowed to grieve for the losses that the characters have been dealt. How often they are asked why they are still mourning when it has been hours, and even sometimes moments, after the loss of a loved one. I always ask myself at the end of this show how it fell apart so terribly for the families. And this time, part of that question was answered in the removal of the necessary mourning one needs when grieving. The pain that these characters go through as they lose their kin in such a violent manner adds some explanation to the extremes that these characters go to. When your heart hurts the way it does in the loss of a dear one, you will do anything to make it stop. And while the attempts are ill-conceived in actually ending that pain, it does give some why to the madness it produces.
This is why we keep coming back to Romeo and Juliet and why we tell it over and over. Somewhere in our minds, we hope that the madness will stop. That someone will tell a parent, that the messenger will actually make it to Romeo, or that Friar Lawrence will arrive just a little bit earlier and head off Romeo at the crypt. That at some point, logic will win in such an illogical chain of events. But it doesn’t. And we sit in the tragic and blood-stained ending with the families, empty and heartbroken. There are so many lessons in this tragic tale, but above all of them, this time I heard the lesson of love. Not romantic love, but love in caring for one another before it is too late.
Romeo and Juliet is recommended for teenagers and older. Full of Shakespeare’s puns and innuendo, along with the violence and death, the production may be too mature for preteens and children. It also carries about a three-hour run time, which could be too long for a younger audience.
Though you’ve probably seen Romeo and Juliet in some form, do not miss Utah Shakespeare’s version of this loving, tragic, cathartic play. You will love it, and learn to love in a new and enlightened way.
Utah Shakespeare Festival presents Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre, 200 W College Ave, Cedar City, UT 84720
July 1-September 9 8:00 PM, with no matinee showings
Please visit www.bard.org for ticket availability, show dates, and times.