By Whitney Sorenson
Don’t miss the chance to see Romeo and Juliet, the Bard’s tragedy about two love-struck teenagers, from the always-entertaining Grassroots Shakespeare Company, playing through January 20 at the SCERA in Orem. If you think you know this play, their performance makes you think again. I’ve never seen a cast bring out so much humor in the first few acts, a contrast that makes the later events in the play seem all the more heart-wrenching.
The basic plot of Romeo and Juliet has almost become cliché in our culture, but that’s precisely why I recommend this performance. Romeo and Juliet from the Grassroots Shakespeare Company serves as the perfect introduction to Shakespeare for tweens and teens or as a great opportunity to remember why this centuries-old play endures.
You walk in the door knowing Romeo and Juliet will meet, fall in love, marry, be pulled apart by their warring families, and eventually die. But this performance plays with that dramatic irony in a way that refreshes the play. The cast draws out so much humor in the first few acts that you can almost forget you are witnessing a tragedy, making you wish for the romantic comedy ending that will never arrive. This humor is especially evident in the characters of Benvolio (Brandon Bills) and Mercutio (Nick Grossaint), who make the Capulet’s party actually feel like a party. And it doesn’t hurt that Grassroots always encourages audiences to shout comments at the actors, a raucous tradition they’ve brought back from Shakespeare’s day.
In fact, Grassroots always performs as an “original practice” company. That is, they do Shakespeare as similarly as possible to the way Shakespeare and his company would have done it. They present a 15-minute greenshow with music and audience interaction before the action of the play kicks off. They have no directors or designers, they perform on a bare stage with minimal scenery, and they rehearse for only a few days before going live. Unlike some Shakespeare performances that rely on sets, effects, and costumes to draw the audience in while their ears adjust to the language of the Bard, GSC depends on their actors’ abilities to spout Shakespearean poetry as easily as they hold conversations with friends—and they succeed.
Of course, the play still has a turning point, and I felt it more than ever in this performance of Romeo and Juliet. The laughter dies with Mercutio and Tybalt (Archelaus B. Crisanto) in the third act and never really returns. At times, I found myself wanting to shout at the stage at inappropriate times, just to minimize the intense sadness that filled up the theatre. That’s a testament to both how fun it is to be at a Grassroots show and how well they shifted the mood after the play’s first deaths.
All the play’s actors give their all, another marker of a Grassroots show, but for me the standout performances were given by Lucas Adrian Buchanan as Romeo and Jessamyn Victoria Svensson as Juliet’s nurse. I always walk into Romeo and Juliet with my high school English teacher’s lesson in my head. She taught us that Romeo basically just flip-flopped his love for Rosaline to Juliet and that Juliet was the lover whose heart was really in the relationship. Not so when Lucas Adrian Buchanan plays Romeo. He transforms Romeo’s overjoyed and later heartbroken passion for Juliet into moments I empathized with. He made me believe love can happen that fast—and turn sour even faster.
As the nurse, Svensson is another comedian in this fine cast. She uses her gift for physical comedy in particular, but not just for laughs. Svensson’s scenes alongside Merry Magee’s Juliet ally the audience even more with the star-crossed teenagers. As the Nurse delays giving Juliet news about when Romeo wants to meet up, I groaned along with Juliet—just tell her already!
Every member of this cast has a mouth made for speaking Shakespeare, and those talents help the audience feel the universality inherent in the play. Families still argue the way Capulet (Daniel Whiting) and Lady Capulet (Jessica Jean Myer) do. Parents still try to set their kids up with totally unsuitable dates like Paris (Jarrith Parker McCoy). The cast even brings in select anachronisms, such as the appearance of the apothecary (Robert Ikey Starks), that make a totally predictable play feel a little less predictable.
One more element makes this performance unmissable: the three musicians who set the mood with guitar, bass, and drums. Cheers to Starks, Gary Argyle, and Scott Robinson for providing a soundtrack to Romeo and Juliet that disquieted me in the sad moments and made me want to cheer during the play’s few triumphs.
If you live for the summer when Grassroots Shakespeare Company tours the state and performs in parks, get yourself to Orem this weekend and see them take on Romeo and Juliet. They’ll satisfy your craving for Shakespeare until warm weather officially arrives.
Grassroots Shakespeare Company presents Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
SCERA Center for the Arts, 745 S State Street, Orem, UT 84058
January 17-20, 7:00 PM
Grassroots Shakespeare Company on Facebook
GSC Romeo and Juliet at the SCERA
GSC Romeo and Juliet Facebook Event