Dallas — Walking into Arts Mission Oak Cliff, the former 1929 Methodist church emptied of pews and pulpits, is a freeing experience. The first-growth pine floors are stripped down and polished, and the ceilings removed to reveal the beams that hold up the roof.
Perfect to launch the newly formed Fair Assembly theater company’s production of a trim two-hour, physical Romeo and Juliet, foregoing weighty costumes and sets and freeing the star-crossed lovers’ story to sweep us off our feet, fueled by Shakespeare’s rich language and a cast of potent, well-trained actors.
Fair Assembly, as its name implies, is a collective effort of Southern Methodist University’s theater, dance and music alumni, now working in Dallas and major cities and artistic companies around the country, reunited in the mode they all know and love best: Let’s put on a show! And, boy, do they ever.
Ten can-do actors portray the 23 roles in the bard’s play, creating the music and the characters, major and minor, with a cape or a smock thrown over neutral-colored shirts, pants and skirts.
Fair Assembly co-founders, and co-directors of Romeo and Juliet, are Joshua L. Peugh; founder and director of Dallas’ Dark Circles Contemporary Dance; Emily Ernst, associate director of Lincoln, Nebraska’s Flatwater Shakespeare Company; and Baltimore-based actor Christopher Rutherford.
Whether the Capulets and Montagues are fighting in the streets of Verona, as they are in the noisy opening scene in an intriguing playing space defined by 80 folding chairs pushed near the edge on either side of the basketball court-size hall. The tribes feud throughout, whether in a grand ball or a cemetery. Poor lovers, torn between family loyalty and a fatal attraction neither can or will deny. Their passion and tragedy plays out between Juliet’s bed on the altar at the front of the hall, and her second-story balcony in the rear of the building. A bedroom, a balcony and a playing space in between is all the bard actually requires.
From the moment he waltzes, dazed, onto the scene, Brandon J. Walter’s dagger-armed Romeo is a young man possessed, not by demons, but the smiling plenitude of love at first sight for a beauty sworn to chastity. His delivery has a lovely rhythm, and the famous love soliloquys with Juliet are newly felt and sexy. In this tight production, Romeo is either on the stage or in a doorway about to appear, drawn to the magnet of his mind and body.
Emily Ernst’s Juliet is bare-legged and barefooted throughout, and her performance has the same sort of fresh appeal. Perhaps more than any other character, Ernst’s Juliet changes and grows from a coy, love-struck girl, flirting and flinging her hair from a balcony, to a willful bride and a passionate, do-or-die wife in the brief hours of the plot. Ernst and Walter stir together a fateful chemistry, and their love scenes generate the real heat that drives the show.
Romeo’s teasing cousin Benvolio, played by Scott Shoemaker with a dancer’s spring and volatility, is all over his best friend to forget such hard-to-get women and free his eyes to other pretty women. Ian Ferguson, who collaborated with Ivan Dillard on the show’s original music, is a devil-take-the-hindmost Mercutio, urging Romeo on to adventure, no matter the outcome. Singing and playing his lute at a masquerade or brandishing his sword in a duel, Ferguson’s elocution is never lost, in a fight or a fast exit.
Michael Federico’s Capulet, lordly in both his capricious humor and threatening demands, grounds this poetic play about love and beauty and youth, in the ruthless cruelties of patriarchal rule. A smart, consummate actor, Federico has ingested Shakespeare’s rich language and delivers the words, somehow, in a cadence both contemporary and classic. His Capulet is garrulous, even jolly, at a ball where he hopes to betroth his treasured daughter to Count Paris (confident, fluent Alexander James MacAlpine). Late in the play, when a sobbing Juliet clings to her beloved father’s knees begging him not to force her to marry Paris, Federico’s Capulet stiffens, his voice grows cold, and he becomes the effective villain in this tragedy, as he demands that daughter, wife and nurse submit to his word. #MeToo vindicated, once more.
Flip Croft-Caderao is a rowdy, ill-natured Tybalt, the kind of moody nephew in any family that can erupt into violence, no matter what he’s told to do.
All the SMU returning alumni bring something special to the production, but never override the main themes. Good direction kudos to the trio in charge. Jaquai Wade Pearson, in two roles, especially seduces as a sympathetic, collaborative Nurse to her dear Juliet, clearly taking a personal sensual pleasure in hearing of the love her mistress feels for Romeo. Christopher Rutherford is a sly, secret romantic as Friar Lawrence, in his sympathetic portrayal of the sleep potion-savvy priest with a timing problem.
The sword fights, brawls and knife fights are sudden, sweaty, and take place at close range, eliciting a visible spine-stiffening in the audience. Sara Romersbeger makes such movement not only convincing, but artful.
Fair Assembly’s founders hope future productions will serve as a stage for SMU’s current students and alumni. Based on this gripping Romeo and Juliet, I hope so, too.