Romeo and Juliet is a play about a tragic love affair. But in today's context, you could think of it as an early version of The Hunger Games, documenting the damage inflicted on innocent teens by a cruel adult society.
The teenage angst of Shakespeare's classic is one of many elements that a new production by Great Lakes Theater gets absolutely right. Though there are a couple small missteps and R&J's love never blossoms as fully as it might, this is an intensely involving evening that flies by — even at a running time, with intermission, of almost three hours.
The story, set in Verona in the 1920s, plays out on a handsome set created by scenic designer Gage Williams, featuring a disintegrating Renaissance wall surrounded by renovation scaffolding. Director Charles Fee fills that space with scenes that crackle with the urgency of a society enduring great upheaval.
Of course, caught between the mutual hatred of the Montagues and the Capulets are Romeo, from the former clan, and Juliet, of the latter. Thanks to Romeo's party crashing in disguise, the two youngsters fall for each other in a trice. And soon the millstones of doomed ardor begin inexorably grinding their futures to dust.
Happily, this staging provides many pleaures before the principals finally go toes up. Primary among these is Betsy Mugavero, who embodies the 14-year-old Juliet with a perfect combination of shyness, feistiness, and sexual awkwardness that feels right for both the character and the place and time.
Negotiating the quicksilver emotional turns common to budding young women, Mugavero's Juliet is a believably irresistible lure for the slightly older Romeo, who is almost as new to sexytime feelings as she is. Christian Durso as Romeo effectively creates moments of libidinous tension with Juliet early on, offering the hope of a heart-wrenching climax as the play gallops to a conclusion.
Weirdly, however, this pairing seems to lose a little steam as time passes, with neither Mugavero nor Durso building on their superb initial chemistry. As a result, their mutually confused suicides at the end don't provide the release you might be hoping for.
The two main characters are supported ably by Laurie Birmingham, almost stealing the show as Nurse, fussing over her charge Juliet. Balancing a tender heart with precise comic timing, Birmingham ignites several scenes that often play as throwaways.
As Capulet, Aled Davies raises the temperature of the proceedings when he attacks his daughter Juliet for her reluctance to marry Count Paris. Dan Lawrence sprays testosterone as the aggressive Tybalt, and Lynn Robert Berg gives Friar Laurence a kindly, avuncular mien.
The one moment of unnecessary excess is J. Todd Adams' Mercutio. Over-blocked and overacted, his Queen Mab speech turns into near gibberish as he employs virtually every characteristic of a hot-blooded, horny firebrand.
It should be noted, however, that the fight scenes in this production are at least a quantum leap beyond what we usually see onstage. Credit goes to Fee and fight choreographer Ken Merckx for assembling witty swordfights that actually feel spontaneous — not to mention downright dangerous.
As always, the joy of seeing Shakespeare is discovering how a new production can deliver an old story with style and verve. And here, this Great Lakes Theater production scores on almost all counts.