The Bard’s first great tragedy, about passionate young lovers who defy the ancient grudge between their families, benefits from an all-teen cast performed under a canopy of stars. There is a reason Romeo and Juliet is many students’ first—and last—taste of Shakespeare. Its timeless themes and characters speak with relevance to the strident hearts and frantic minds of teenagers.
It's presented by Junior Players at Samuell-Grand Park, closing Shakespeare Dallas' summer season. Director Valerie Hauss-Smith’s energetic, novel and thoughtful interpretation of a play that can sometimes be a bland, over-performed caricature, deserves special recognition primarily for the surprisingly mature performances she elicits from her actors.
Foremost of these earnest artists is Fiona Robberson as Juliet. It is a rare feat indeed for an actor to make this most famous of Shakespeare’s heroines fresh and ultimately her own. Robberson clearly has the acting chops for this role, with a strong sense of the meaning in her lines, and an ability to interpret them with ease and command. But it is her courage to allow Juliet to be an occasionally silly girl that makes the performance.
Her Romeo (Dylan Bare) is also up to the task of presenting something new. Bare eschews the traditional emo demeanor of the juvenile Montague, for a self-deprecatingly witty and lively romantic lead. Again, having teens playing teens makes a world of difference in this play.
Another standout performance is Claudia Hullett as Juliet’s Nurse, bringing a mature sassiness and comedic world-weariness to the role. Trey Townsend’s Mercutio is manically brilliant, and Elizabeth Berkman as Benvolio adds a sense of romantic devotion to her role as Romeo’s cousin/friend, which is traditionally played by a male. Friar Lawrence (Matthew Eitzen), a character often marginalized in a play of outsized passions, shines in his embodiment of an Irish priest with well-meaning advice complete with an authentic brogue and impeccable timing.
The visuals of the play are fun and lively. It is set in the American Prohibition era, rife with Bruce R. Coleman’s snazzy suits, fedoras, suspenders and period dresses. Lloyd Caldwell’s fight choreography is dramatic, varied and realistic enough to elicit many delighted gasps from the audience.
Hauss-Smith’s direction and interpretation deserve praise. She allows her actors to be appropriately young, has clearly helped them understand their lines, and even has the daring to let them push the bawdiness of the play. One has to appreciate such a delectably heartfelt and daring take on an old classic.
Youth is not wasted on the young in this production.