They're acting up in Forest Park again.
Yes, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, now in its eighteenth year, offers as its flagship production Romeo and Juliet. It’s the first time SFSL has repeated a show; R&J was their initial offering in 2001.
Shakespeare Glen, where the productions have their Park home, is diagonally across from the front of the Art Museum. The word “festival” is becoming more and more apparent on arriving – trees and scaffolding are festooned with ribbons that echo the colors of the festival’s stylized emblem, and the riot of color continues onstage with the set. Yes, it’s Verona, and to make sure the point is made, there’s a large sign stage right welcoming us to Verona, part of a dreamlike set. Those same colors give a lighthearted, almost tropical feel to things despite the scaffolding and bursts of traditional architecture. Plenty of children (plus a craft area for them) and dogs add to the lighthearted aura of the evening, despite the heat on opening night.
The casting on both the leads was exemplary. Sigrid Wise approaches Juliet as an about-to-be-14 from a family where she’s been pretty cossetted, especially as the only surviving child of her upper-class parents. The careful portrayal, especially its physicality, is notably younger than many have shown onstage, and it fits perfectly. Reynaldo Piniella’s Romeo is a Dude – a young dude, obviously, from the moment he slink-walks onto the stage, and one who is overwhelmed by raging but very age-appropriate hormones. They drive his actions, from his love to his violence, but Piniella’s Romeo is not just a pulsating mass of testosterone. There’s subtlety as well as exuberance.
It’s hard not to love Jane Paradise playing Juliet’s nurse. She’s perhaps the best example in the entire play of how actors can make even Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English easy to follow for modern audiences. She’s a delight, and frequently a stitch. Cherie Corrine Rice is Lady Capulet, Juliet’s mother. Her body language alone, radiating strength, makes her the equal of her husband in terms of power, even though dialogue and historical accuracy says otherwise. Lord Capulet, Michael James Reed, seems a pretty decent guy until he loses his cool when Juliet refuses to marry the guy he’s decided on, in a wedding two days hence. His temper is a remarkable thing. Romeo’s parents – and remember, these two families have been at odds for some generations now, the origins lost in time – seem, aside from that nasty feud business, warm, supportive folks, played by Patrice Foster and David Heron. Gary Glasgow is Friar Laurence, a pivotal character, and he has a fine time with it. He desperately hopes to reconcile the warring clans, but fails abysmally.
And while this play is ultimately a tragedy, more than half is really as lighthearted as the stage setting of Margery and Peter Spack would indicate. Balls, puns, bawdy jokes, it’s designed to provide a sharp contrast to the final turns of the play. It’s helped along a great deal by Dust Ensemble, the musicians who wrote and play the score, especially the horn player leading a funeral procession with a vague reference to New Orleans-style funerals.
The fight choreographer Paul Dennhardt had his hands full – there’s plenty, especially of swordplay here, but it comes off beautifully. Sound from Rusty Wandall worked almost perfectly, and John Wylie’s lighting adds to the drama. Costumes are by Dottie Marshall Englis, mostly quite contemporary, but again the variance in their seeming eras adds to the dreamlike quality. It had to have been no coincidence that Wise’s Juliet looks like Alice in Wonderland with her long blonde curls and light blue dress trimmed in lace.
It’s a delightful evening and the show moves rapidly as directed by Elena Araoz, despite the twists and turns of the plots. She’s done a fine job with Romeo and Juliet, and there’s no better way to introduce the young to live theatre and Shakespeare than plopping down a blanket or renting one of the reserved seats.
And by the way, the seating configuration has been changed slightly, more seats on the sides but seemingly with fewer rear rows. And they’re offering boxed suppers, like Opera Theatre, plus reserved blanket seating and you get to keep the blanket!
To add a final touch, I was happy to hear in the distance the St. Louis Zoo’s occasional contribution to the festivities, the chorus of sea lions, much more fun than music drifting over from another venue across the park.
Romeo and Juliet
through June 24
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis