I am just going to say it: Romeo and Juliet is my least favorite Shakespeare play. I know it’s the entry point into Shakespeare for a lot of people, but it is so overdone. The director’s notes in the program for Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s production talked about the many productions and adaptations made over the years. It’s so popular that if you say “R&J” in a crowd there is a high probability that most people will know you are talking about the play with the star-crossed lovers. More like star-crossed dummies in my opinion. I’m sorry, teen suicide and the circumstances surrounding their demise make it extremely problematic imho. This play feels like a horror movie where a character dies and you have been mentally questioning their every decision and screaming at them throughout the entire movie. Like that.
Unless you have been hiding under a rock you know the plot of Romeo and Juliet. But if you were ever a little confused in 9th grade English class, I’m gonna lay it out for you, Spark notes style: So there’s this young dude named Romeo Montague (Kate Oelkers). His friend Benvolio (Joshua Street) convinces him to go to this party of a rival family, the Capulets, in disguise. Of course he spies a fine dime piece at the party who happens to be the daughter of Lady Capulet (Ayesha Gowie) and Lord Capulet (Chris Cotterman), none other than our girl Juliet (Ronnita Freeman). They fall in love at first sight and Juilet’s Nurse (Holly Gibbs) is wise to what’s going on. Juliet’s kinsman Tybalt (Grayson Owen) peeps the love-fest and is all up in his feelings about this rival with his cousin. The Nurse acts as a neutral party between the lovers and Friar Laurence (Dean Carlson) agrees to marry the young lovers in secret. Well Tybalt is still pissed and challenges Romeo to a duel, but Romeo’s party friend Mercutio (Justin Johnson) decides to fight in his place. Tybalt slays Mercutio, then in revenge Romeo slays Tybalt, and Benvolio is left to explain two dead bodies to Lord Capulet, Lord Montague (Conrad Deitrick) and the Prince (Justin Johnson). Romeo is banished and the Capulets try to marry off Juliet to the gentleman Paris (Autumn Koehnlein). Juliet says, “Fuck that” and enlists help from Friar Laurance who gives her a sleeping potion to make her appear dead. Well of course Romeo finds her in the crypt before the good Friar can give him the low down. Romeo kills himself with real poison, Juilet wakes and sees her dead lover and thus kills herself too. End play.
Okay, so, even though I loathe this play, the BSF production was stacked with talent. STACKED. This group of actors worked well together and looked like they were having fun on stage. I always have mad love for the actors playing supporting characters like guards, soldiers, and servants. Every actor was double or triple cast except the titular characters, which is needed and necessary in most Shakespeare plays, but Julie Press (Lady Montague/1st boy/1st Musician/Balthaazar) and MJ Smith (Capulet Man (Fellow)/Citizen/Paris’ Page/3rd Musician) held it down with the most roles. Nice job guys. My favorite supporting actor was Abigail Frank as Peter/Sampson/3rd Watchman. Abigail Frank stole the show in every scene they were in with energy and heart. Other stand-outs included Mercutio (Justin Johnson), Friar Laurence (Dean Carlson) and Nurse (Holly Gibbs). Justin Johnson was saucy, animated and raunchy as Mercutio. I wanted to party with this dude. He had good chemistry with Romeo and together they were playful bros just kickin’ it. Dean Carlson’s deep voice resonated through the theater and he had stage presence for days. I believed he was a clergyman trying to support the young lovers. Let me tell you, the Nurse was sassy AF! Holly Gibbs is a national treasure! She had great comedic timing and a profound understanding of the language. She owned the stage every time she stepped foot on it. Can Holly Gibbs play every character? No? Okay, just the Nurse for now.
As for the lovers: Kate Oelkers (Romeo) was best when speaking as a lovesick, lost puppy with rosy cheeks and a dopey grin. Ronnita Freeman (Juliet) had a good understanding of the language and didn’t play Juliet as a vapid teen girl. Ronnita Freeman made her feel real and whole, like a young lady finding her own agency. Together, their chemistry was palpable. The party scene where they first laid eyes on each other had them stealing secret glances. I didn’t pay attention to the other action on stage. I was invested in these two crazy kids from the start. There was this “will they, won’t they” push and pull secrecy. Their performance of the iconic balcony scene was filled with a boastful love that couldn’t be contained. It was that cute, young love that makes you want to vomit a little.
Stogy, ole Shakespearean costumes? Not in this production thanks to Costume Designer Kendra Shapanus. The costumes were chill where everyone wore black slacks, boots, vests and jackets with each house or occupation represented by a colorful shirt: Montagues were in blue, the Capulets in maroon, the servants and guards in purple and clergymen in tan. Music direction was on point. Kristen Cooley did an excellent job of choosing pre-show and intermission songs that were modern, catchy, and appropriate to the production. It was like a Shakespearean Spotify channel! Fight choreographer Lewis Shaw created authentic sword fights that were equal parts technical, believable, and most importantly safe.
The direction by Anne Hammontree was thoughtful and bad ass. She incorporated active blocking that was specific and encouraged the actors’ liberal use of eye contact with the audience. Her use of the floor space during the action was a nice way to get the audience engaged. Overall, but especially in the balcony scene, Anne Hammontree made great use of the space and she employed a refreshing mix of light physical comedy and drama to give R&J more levity and realness. I mean, this is a drama where we know that people die in the end, but I didn’t realize how funny and jovial it was. That’s a good thing! It takes a good director to steer the actors to engage their emotional range and connect with what they are saying. Anne Hammontree pulled all the elements together in a smart, emotional, and witty production.
A thoughtful lesson that applies to our world today? Rivalries ain’t shit. We have lived this “divided” narrative before. Today each side continues to grow further and further apart from one another and we don’t always understand why. Montagues vs. Capulets. North vs. South. Rural vs. Urban. Democrats vs. Republicans. Liberals vs. Conservatives. Environmentalist vs. Global warming deniers. Starks vs. Lannisters. Wait, that last one is from a fictional world, but you get where I’m coming from. This division dynamic is nothing new. But how do we break the cycle? The urban poet Cardi B says, “Why don’t you chill with that beef and get some chicken instead?” Good question Cardi. Montagues and Capulets, it took the loss of your kids to squash your rivalry. What will it take for us in the real world to break bread, sit at the table and come to a common ground? I don’t know but it needs to happen sooner rather than later. A plague on both our houses if we don’t.
Should I stay or should I go: Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s production of Romeo and Juliet should be on your summer reading list, I mean summer watch list. You may know the story, but Baltimore Shakespeare Factory will make you see the play in a different light. The simple tech and the excellent acting make this show a must see. Don’t really like Shakespeare? That’s okay, because the strong ensemble of actors will help navigate you through the language and look you in the eye while they do it. Romeo and Juliet was emotional, powerful, funny and full of life. It made me like the story….a little bit. I am always enamored by Shakespeare’s language but this production allowed me to see more humanity in the piece, question the characters’ decisions and see past the teenage suicide. This ain’t your 9th grade English class. This is grown folks Shakespeare honey. —Z
Now through July 21st. Running time: 2 hours and 20 mins with a 15-minute intermission. Come early for the musical pre-show performances.