Fort Worth — “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene….” So begins William Shakespeare’s tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. His comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as the name implies, also takes place in that Italian city. Besides setting, the plays also share the same possible year of composition (1594). It is this Veronese pairing that sets the stage for Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s festival, entitled "Verona, Verona!"
SSG is running the plays in repertory, so one has the chance to see both on the same day (as I did). It had been awhile since I've seen a Stolen Shakes production, and although I had always been impressed with how they handle their Shakespeare, I am blown away with what they are doing now. If you add SSG along with the Trinity Shakespeare Festival, the best Bard by far is happening in Fort Worth.
The early romantic comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona has many elements that Shakespeare perfects later in such plays as The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night: letter shenanigans, rings given as love tokens, women disguised as men, and railing servants/fools. Directors Alex Krus along with Jason and Lauren Morgan mine these comedic elements and balance them with an impressively strong emphasis on the preponderance of verse (around 75 percent) in the play. They do this on Jason Morgan’s set of columns and period Italian building exteriors with rounded archways (R&J uses the same set) wearing Lauren Morgan’s fine Jane Austen-era costumes, and under Bryan Douglas’ well-suited lights.
Romantic cad Proteus (a suave and smirking Andrew Manning) “loves” Julia (Kelly Nickell in a deft turn, especially in disguise) until he sets eyes on Silvia (a brightly shining Jessica Taylor), his best friend, Valentine’s (Nick Pinelli) girlfriend. It’s a love triangle with four sides really, and one fraught with one of the quickest change of heart endings in all of Shakespeare.
The best roles in the play belong to Silvia, Proteus, and Julia, with dog-loving servant Launce (John Tyler Shults) as the most popular. Shults and his dog, Crab (Black Dahlia Brown) carry most of the comedy along with the always late servant, Speed (a hilarious Magdiel Carmona).
As good as their Two Gentleman is, SSG’s Romeo and Juliet delivers much more. Jason and Lauren Morgan direct Shakespeare’s most romantic, and most performed, tragedy. The same excellent attention to detail, characterization, emphasis on language (with a refreshing lack of body mics), and perfect tempo are here just as they were in the other play. A few interpretive flourishes within a lovely, traditional rendition of the play, and some outstanding performances (especially one of the leads and two of the supporting roles) improve the quality of this ill-fated love story even more.
Attending as many R&Js as I have lately (four in the last few months) one begins to notice and appreciate the nuances in productions that take on material that is already well known. The Morgans begin the play with Romeo and Juliet lying down (seemingly already dead) while having Friar Laurence (Delmar H. Dolbier) deliver the prologue (usually it’s the Prince). The effect is an even chillier start to the action and highlights the dubious character of the Friar.
As a whole, the entire cast is terrific, with only a few disappointing performances, and three transcendent ones. Both plays show a fully engaged ensemble: realistic reactions, crowd noises, and appropriate expressions to create a complete theatrical picture.
Nathan Dibben’s Romeo comes off slight and oftentimes bland. In his defense, he plays up the fickle Montague scion’s youth and naiveté well and he wakes up a bit once he meets his Capulet match, but who wouldn’t given this production’s resplendent Juliet (Shannon Garcia)? Christian Schmoker as Mercutio is also a bit flat. Romeo’s firebrand friend is usually a delight in this sad tragedy.
Romeo’s other friend, Benvolio (Kyle Lester) fares much better here. Lester has crafted the best version of this (minor?) character I have ever seen. Also surprisingly good is Neil Rogers as Juliet’s father, Capulet. His performance is big, bold, and full of fire and heart. His scene where he rails at Juliet’s disobedience has touches of Orson Welles.
In the end though, it is Garcia’s Juliet that elevates the whole show. She is utterly charming in her embodiment of the giddy young teen. Her intensity also evokes the feeling that these two lovers are really, really hot for each other (something lost in most productions).
Verona is indeed fair, multiplied times two.
» R&J runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with an intermission
TGOV runs 1 hour 45 minutes with an intermission
The showtimes in the final weekend of the festival are:
- Two Gentleman of Verona – Friday Feb 27, 2015 @ 8pm
- Two Gentleman of Verona – Saturday Feb 28, 2015 @ 2pm
- Romeo and Juliet- Saturday Feb 28, 2015 @ 8pm
- Romeo and Juliet – Sunday March 1, 2015 @ 2pm