“Romeo and Juliet” is arguably Shakespeare’s most well known play. There are numerous film adaptations, it’s the inspiration for many other works of art, and the play is a staple of high school English classes. Even my elementary school age daughters are familiar with the story line of the star crossed lovers — thanks to the comedy “Gnomeo and Juliet.”
Having seen the Romeo and Juliet movies, heard the songs, and having regularly taught it to my freshman students, I was excited to attend the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theater’s production at Jack Townshend Point for my first viewing of a live production of the play.
It felt a bit magical to walk through the sunny birch forest on the University of Alaska toward the theater and find oneself suddenly transported to another world. FST’s newly built, multilevel stage was set up with vines, stairs and a balcony, effectively transporting the audience to a villa in medieval Verona.
The play opens on streets of Verona as two men, Sampson and Gregory, of the House of Capulet “bite their thumbs” to insult a servant from the rival House of Montague as he passes. This humorous insult incites a brawling sword-fight that draws in multiple members of the two feuding families.
Sampson and Gregory, though minor characters, were played to a perfectly mischievous T by Corban Mantei and Turner Nolan. Mantei and Nolan nailed the comic timing in their delivery of Shakespeare’s puns and innuendo, eliciting giggles and smirks from the audience. Disturbing the peace in such a riotous fashion in Verona, however, can result in a sentence of torture or death for the miscreants.
The choreography of the sword fight in this scene and the one that follows in Act III are impressive and exciting. The key characters involved in the sword duels are Tybalt (Kyle Moore), Mercutio (Freddy Gryder) and Romeo (Keaton Evans). Both battles were complemented by the moving set pieces which stage hands rolled around the swashbuckling characters to further the sense of movement and chaos.
Evans and Larson are convincing as the angsty, lovestruck teens who believe they have have found their soulmates. Larson is particularly good in Act IV, when she delivers a powerful performance of Juliet’s final soliloquy full of the anxiety of a young teen who believes there are no good options left and who has very little agency to change the course of doomed events.
The performance was at its best in the supporting characters, including Flyn Ludington’s portrayal of Juliet’s zany nurse. Diane “Bunny” Fleeks’ performance as Friar Lawrence, a mentor to Romeo conveys the character’s wisdom and loving exasperation with the reckless teen, and Gryder as the temperamental Mercutio regularly draws laughs with his jests about Romeo’s love life. Other performers were Lady Capulet (Carianna Zeisel), Montague (Nancy Fresco), Lady Montague (Sarah Dimmick), and Count Paris (Caden Wassmann).
Director Courtland Weaver (who also plays Capulet) included several dance sequences in this interpretation of the play. This worked well in the Capulet’s party scene as the dance provided a situation for Romeo and Juliet’s first face to face, and “palm to palm” meeting. I found it less effective in the final scene where Romeo, after his final soliloquy, dances with the “ghosts” of Paris, Tybalt, and Mercutio, as well as with Juliet who hasn’t yet woken from her sleeping potion, but is technically still alive.
This dance of death was a bit confusing to the audience at first, as Mercutio walked back on stage seemingly out of nowhere, and lessened the intensity of the harrowing final scene. I felt the “dance with death” would have been better placed after the deaths of two title characters.
Overall, this was an entertaining and well-staged production, retelling the familiar story in a lively and engaging manner. Even the weather cooperated, as clouds loomed in the formerly sunny sky and it began to rain just as Prince Escalus, played by Hank Nuwer, recited the mournful final lines of the play: “A glooming peace this morning with it brings, the sun for sorrow will not show his head.” The Prince’s somber lines provided a fitting ending to the tragedy.
The Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre’s “Romeo and Juliet” runs through July 30 at the University of Alaska’s Jack Townshend Point (with parking close to the UFA Museum of the North). Tickets are available at the FST web site. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m. Sunday performances are at 2 p.m. The play runs rain or shine, and indeed, two previous performances were completed in light rain and soaked costumes.