Courtesy Cleveland Shakespeare Festival
Romeo and Juliet are at it again
After the long drought of the COVID pandemic, one way back to normalcy must certainly be experiencing again the ineffable delights of Shakespeare performed outdoors. Happily, there are two opportunities to experience those pleasures this summer, with the Ohio Shakespeare Festival running A Midsummer Night's Dream by the lagoon at Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens in Akron, and with Cleveland Shakespeare Festival's traveling production of Romeo & Juliet.
As for the former, our attempt to engage again with Puck, Oberon, Titania and Nick Bottom was flushed by a hellacious rainstorm ten minutes after the curtain rose. But the initial proceedings looked promising, with OSF's trademark lusty swordfights and amusing performances much in evidence. As for the latter, the weather gods smiled down on Coventry Road Peace Park in Cleveland Heights, where CleveShakes' premier of R&J took place (the other performances are scheduled at locations throughout the area). A dandy show it is and, as always, it's FREE!
Director Dusten A. Welch has infused this classic with virtually non-stop (but not gratuitous) motion as the cast revolves around a single, small box platform. The characters blast fully into view as they project their voices with admirable gusto, overcoming the ambient sounds of chirping birds and the occasional police siren. Hey, you're outdoors and you're not at home watching a rerun of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, so count your blessings.
In the lead roles of the star-crossed lovers, Ryan Pangracs is a vital and nicely agitated Romeo, trembling with his adoration of Juliet. And Emily Wirthwein is a lovely and spirited Juliet, although a bit too mature and composed at times considering she's supposed to be just an eighth grader. Still, their balcony scene plays with all the charm you could want.
The rest of the players are double- or triple-cast, and that works out well for the most part. Cody Swanson is a voluble and boisterous Mercutio and then cools his jets a bit as both the Prince and hapless Paris, who is promised Juliet's hand in marriage. And his swordfight with Tybalt is plenty juicy (look out OSF, there's competition). That triggers Romeo's killing of Tybalt and setting the stage for the kids to dispatch themselves in another case of adolescent amygdalas run amuck..
The male cousins of the lovers, Benvolio and Tybalt, are played by females—Bobbie Hart and Jasmyn Molaei respectively—and they swagger and stomp believably while also taking on additional roles. As snarky Lord Capulet, Juliet's daddy, Keith Kornajcik bellows resoundingly during his too-brief time on stage.
Two juicy roles, the Nurse and Friar Lawrence, are attacked with abandon by longtime CleveShakes member Allen Branstein. Although he makes no effective attempt to vocally differentiate his characters, his body language for each serves to clarify who they are. While nuance may not be Branstein's long suit, he is definitely attuned to the cut-it-loose vibe of outdoor performances.
This pared-down R&J comes in at a tidy 110 minutes without an intermission, which is a full hour less than other productions and perfect for these settings. So bring a blanket or folding chair and enjoy some open-air wordsmithing by Old Will.
Romeo & Juliet
Produced by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival at various outdoor locations, free of charge. For more on the performance schedule and more information visit: cleveshakes.com.