Review: Energetic and creative ‘Romeo and Juliet’ brings familiar play to new life

Shakespeare’s Globe brings its creative production of “Romeo and Juliet” to Spoleto Festival USA.

When it comes to the theater, familiarity breeds a specific kind of dread. If you’re walking into a Shakespeare production, that dread comes from the middle ground. There isn’t any.

The Bard’s plays are either poorly cast, poorly directed or poorly understood duds; or they are elevated pieces that define theater and inspire love, new or renewed, of the work. Appropriate, then, that the historic Globe Theater, should bring the latter kind of Shakespeare here for a run at the Dock Street Theatre for Spoleto Festival 2015. Its “Romeo and Juliet” (co-directed by Dominic Dromgoole and Tim Hoare) is an absolute delight and rekindles this reviewer’s passion for the infamous star-crossed lovers.

Designer Andrew D. Edwards has crafted a marvelous multi-level set that the actors get a lot of great mileage out of. Choreography by Kevin McCurdy does the action proud. Mercutio and Tybalt look to be having a grand time with an excellent fight scene. Costumes are simple. Base dresses for the women and trousers/suspenders for the men are embellished with coats, capes and hats to affect different characters.

The Montagues and the Capulets are at war in fair Verona. Romeo is a Montague. Juliet is a Capulet. They fall in love. You know the rest. Taylor Swift wrote a whole song about it (she got the facts wrong). Baz Luhrmann fared better in 1996 (he got the tone right). Marriages turn to deaths turn to tragedies in a matter of days. Are there any uninitiated still out there? Well, if so, this might be a good time to jump on board.

It’s a really strange thought, but it looks like a Mumford and Sons music video at the start. The cast, wearing trousers, suspenders, and all playing various musical instruments, form a band at the top and play through a rousing number that devolves into the war that plagues the violent Verona of the play. Juliet on saxophone? Friar Lawrence playing the cymbal? Hilarious. The musical numbers return at the top of Act Two and the Finale, but aren’t as vital to the storytelling as I would have expected. The score by composer Bill Barclay and performed by offstage musicians, flows into and out of scenes seamlessly throughout. It adds to the atmosphere when present and never distracts.

Speaking of flowing scenes, this clever production layers the script of “Romeo and Juliet” in a way that makes the play feel lightning-quick and clever. For example, Romeo’s pining for his lady love Rosaline is paralleled quite nicely with Juliet being wooed by the fair Paris, and her father Capulet’s coming party. I found the concurrent scene structure very refreshing. An almost three-hour play never feels overlong or plodding. The story is duly served.

The servers here are some exceptional players. The Globe has assembled a strong cast, eight total, who fill every role (all but the leads play multiple characters). The lovers (Cassie Layton as Juliet and Samuel Valentine as Romeo) have great chemistry, but I applaud them above all else for playing these famously glorified youths as the children that they are. The recklessness of the pair is felt in this production, especially by Layton, who fills Juliet to bursting with wit, charm and curiosity and then allows the girl to explode in a storm of adolescent tears and angst. Her celebrations at her pending nuptials and her lamentations when love brings only death are visceral and felt by anyone who remembers puberty. Valentine is solid as Romeo but never quite feels like the emotional dam that his costar does.

Tom Kanji is exceptional as Friar Laurence, his feeling and care for Rome and Juliet evident as he attempts to aid love in any way he can. Props to Steven Elder (Lord Capulet) for absolutely nailing the headstrong father’s pivotal second act monologue. MVP honors may lie with Steffan Donnelly, though. His Mercutio and Prince are both fantastic performances, and allow for the multiple-casting conceit to really shine. Donnelly is a joy to watch every single second he’s on stage. Sarah Higgins as the Nurse/Others does give him a run for his money. Both are hilarious and squeeze every bit of humor out of a ages-old script.

It feels like ages since I’ve been on the edge of my seat during “Romeo and Juliet.” I’m surprised to know it can still happen. It’s not a happy ending, sure, but I still left dancing.

Michael Smallwood is an actor in Charleston.