As children grow up, all their stories end with the phrase "And they lived happily ever after." Among the many lies we tell kids, this is perhaps the most egregious and the most necessary because, not to put too fine a point on it, there are only two ways any real human stories end: With death, or sickness followed by death. This fact makes adulthood something less than a nonstop funfest and explains why God gave us the extra-dry martini.
Shakespeare, however, had a different way to escape this reality and wrote Romeo and Juliet, the immortal tale of doomed love that brutally canceled the "happily-ever-after" hogswallow by having the teenage lovers from combative families die in each other's arms. If this were to happen today, it would be analyzed in detail on Dateline, with much tsk-tsking about the parlous state of youth today, not to mention the perils of family feuds. But put it onstage, as the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival is doing free of charge at two different outdoor venues, and it becomes the ultimate tribute to the enduring beauty of adoration shared to the death.
In a production that's intermittently successful, Edie Hitchcock as Juliet stands out for her sweet, tender innocence spiced by occasional flares of temper -- she perfectly embodies a Juliet who would risk everything for the love of her life. Romeo, however, is rendered rather woodenly by John DiAntonio, who, facially resembling a young John Kerry, tends to act feelings (say, slack-jawed infatuation) rather than essaying a dimensional character. This tends to undercut their scenes together and drains some of the passion from their star-crossed journey.
The supporting characters are also a mixed bag. Mark Cipra offers a robust turn as the boozily sociable but short-tempered Capulet, Juliet's dad, and Scott Esposito as Romeo's buddy Mercutio is lively. Michael Sherman is a properly aggressive Tybalt, and Jimmie Woody is capable as the hopeful and helpful Friar Lawrence. But Patty LaFountaine mugs insufferably as Juliet's nurse, as if she's trying to carve out her own burlesque mini-playlet within the overall proceedings.
This literal interpretation by director Juliette Regnier almost demands strong performances across the board, since few imaginative forays are attempted. In one instance, however, there is a lack of consistency: During a swordfight using invisible weapons, there is a metal-on-metal sound of the rapiers being unsheathed, but no effects for the clanging of the blades. The simple set, with hanging strands of tiny lights and reflective bits, is effective even if it does recall those icky, omnipresent icicle holiday lights that droop off countless gutters and window ledges during the winter.
All in all, this is a pleasant if not stirring Romeo and Juliet and a diverting way to spend a summer's eve outdoors. And if it helps you believe in an eternal bond that leapfrogs our mortal weakness, all the better.