Pictured: Brittany Bellizeare and Edgar Miguel Sanchez. Photo by Liz Lauren.
By Josh Flanders
The great part of reviewing “Romeo and Juliet” is that there is no call to critique the script (it was decent, Shakespeare is OK). This story is so seeped into popular culture and has been produced so many ways, that to find a unique take is a challenge. But Barbara Gaines, Artistic Director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is up to that challenge and has some real success, while several parts of this new production fall short.
Gaines reminds us that “Romeo and Juliet” has a great deal of humor, mostly in the first three acts (but also in Juliet’s first feigned “death” in Act IV), and she takes a good deal of liberty with the script in order to double down on the laughs, bringing out the best in her actors. Edgar Miguel Sanchez is delightful as Romeo; passionate, giddy, and often playfully breaking the fourth wall to address audience members. His compatriot Mercutio is played with a quickly alternating fiery intensity and joyful jest by Nate Burger, whose years as a company member with the outstanding American Players Theater in Spring Green, WI explains his comfort with the bard. In this production, the passion, and often physical violence between these two, manifest closer to a real connection than the star-crossed lovers.
Unfortunately, despite her confident poise and mastery of the script, Brittany Bellizeare’s Juliet just does not connect emotionally. While it is still early in the run, her scenes with Romeo come off as inauthentic. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Capulet (James Newcomb and Lia D. Mortensen), on the other hand, are boisterous and hilarious as tumbler-swilling country clubbers. Mortensen exudes joy and celebration, breathing life into every scene she is in. While the decision to make the cane-wielding Mr. Capulet jump into the fray when the families feud seems odd, his overall fits of violence, especially towards Juliet, reinforce the abusive nature of that relationship and make it all the clearer why she’d run off for some crazy I-just-met-you marriage with Romeo. Darlene Hope (the Friar) brings equal parts humor and gravitas (as well as a great singing voice), the glue that keeps these lovers together. Betsy Aidem (the Nurse) is very funny, yet hams it up so much that when she needs to be serious it is hard to tell how to react.
This “Romeo and Juliet” is entirely modern, opening with a basketball game on a colorful graffiti-covered stage where the Montagues and Capulets first face off. Scott Davis’ scenic design reflects the urban tone Gaines looks to set, yet the costumes by Meika Van Der Ploeg are all over the place. Nirvana shirts and color pallets say 90s, but Members Only jackets say 80s, while a remote that starts a car is more modern, and the characters all carry hunting knives, an odd choice. The Prince from the original play becomes Chief of Police Hakeem (Amir Abdullah), an imposing, powerful presence, accompanied by riot-clad police.
There are several attempts at a larger message which get lost amid disparate production and design choices. The fight direction by Rick Sordelet lacks realism and seems play-acty, undercutting Gaines’ more serious intentions to make a statement about modern violence with the riot cops and heavy-handed final imagery. The lighting effects by Aaron Spivey between scenes are abrupt and jolting in an attempt to keep the pace up, and often the actors rush lines that need more room to breathe. Overall, this production of “Romeo and Juliet,” while colorful and humorous in parts, posits the sad truth that only through great loss will we see the error of our violent ways and lay down our hunting knives.