Tuesday, June 5, 2018

ROMEO & JULIET • Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Ah, young love. And long-standing family feuds, potions, poisons and suicide. Whether it’s in the form of a ballet, opera or West Side Story, Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers is known the world over. Shakespeare Festival’s production is a vibrant one, starting with the colorful streamers draping the set and the trees of Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen. Margery and Peter Spack’s two-story set features bold stripes, a central tower, lit curlicue spirals and a “Benvenuti Verona” sign. Dust Ensemble, a tight little three-piece garage band (in a little garage!), peppers the play with original compositions that are lively one moment and ominous the next, and the clear diction and phrasing of the cast make it easy to revel in some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful verses.

The serenity of the procession of the Blessed Virgin Mary that starts this production doesn’t last long, as the Capulet and Montague servants start scuffling soon after, and pleas from the exasperated Prince (Pete Winfrey) to keep the peace under pain of death causes them to retreat to their corners -- for now.
Juliet (Sigrid Wise), Romeo (Reynaldo Piniella),
Lord Capulet (Michael James Reed)
and Lady Capulet (Cherie Corinne Rice).
Photo credit: J. David Levy
These two families are sworn enemies, but when Juliet Capulet shares a dance with a masked Romeo Montague at her father’s feast (which, judging from the choreography, looks like a great party), the two can think or talk of little else besides each other, with all of the passion of budding, impetuous, all-consuming love. Reynaldo Piniella is our Romeo, sporting shades and a leather jacket when we first meet him. Piniella delivers his lines with swagger, and Juliet finds him irresistible. Sigrid Wise is Juliet, and she embodies all of the giddiness of a love-smitten teen, and eloquence when it comes to cutting through Romeo’s romantic musings to make sure his intentions are true in an excellent balcony scene. Piniella and Wise seem age-appropriately young, and their chemistry is convincing. A well meaning Friar (Gary Glasgow) secretly marries them, thinking maybe their union will bring an end to the families’ ancient feud, and he continues to assist them along the way, but his good intentions propel the lovers’ doomed fate.

Romeo (Reynaldo Piniella) and Juliet (Sigrid Wise).
Photo credit: J. David Levy
Terrell Wheeler is Mercutio, Romeo’s close friend. He’s sharp, moody and cynical -- poking fun at Romeo’s lovesickness and trying to snap him out of it. Always the life of the party, he gives one of the plays most memorable monologues -- the Queen Mab speech. Queen Mab is a tiny fairy who rides an empty hazelnut for a coach, driven by a gnat, around the noses of sleepers, filling dreams with fantasies and punishing women who dream of love. These wildly fanciful images are brought to life through Wheeler’s spirited delivery. When Tybalt (Dakota Granados) tries to start trouble with Romeo for crashing his family’s party, Mercutio steps in on his friend’s behalf and gets himself killed -- a casualty of the families' grudge, screaming “a plague on both your houses” as a dying curse. This seems to set the course of events on a tragic, inescapable trajectory. Romeo in turn kills Tybalt, and is banished. Desperate to be with Romeo, and in an effort to escape a marriage to Paris (a high-profile Count Juliet's parents have picked out for her, also played by Winfrey), she takes a vial of potion from Friar Laurence that will make her appear dead, thinking she can escape from her tomb when the effect wears off, and live happily with Romeo. Things don’t go as planned.

Friar Laurence (Gary Glasgow).
Photo credit: J. David Levy
The Capulets are wealthy members of society, but short on parenting skills. Lord Capulet, regally portrayed by Michael James Reed, turns angry and downright hateful to his daughter at the first hint of her opposition to marrying Paris. Lady Capulet loves her daughter, but relies heavily on the family nurse for parental support, and Cherie Corinne Rice stomps around in her heels like one of the “Real Housewives.” Jane Paradise is a delight as the nurse, a confidante to Juliet with a range of inflections and a rhythmic, hearty laugh, providing much of the comic relief, particularly her naughty exchanges with Mercutio. Great performances also by Antonio Rodriguez as Romeo’s thoughtful friend, Benvolio, David Heron as Lord Montague, Patrice Foster as Lady Montague, and Patrick Blindauer, pulling triple-duty in three roles. John Wylie’s lights bathe the set to complement changing moods, and costume designer, Dottie Marshall Englis, employs a rich mixture of styles, patterns and textures. Another creative standout is Paul Dennhardt’s fight choreography, which is stylish and fearsome. Kudos also to text coach, Joanna Battles.

Tybalt (Dakota Granados) and Mercutio (Terrell Wheeler).
Photo credit: J. David Levy
It’s an enchanting evening all around thanks to director Elena Araoz, who keeps the action humming at a rapid pace, making the three-hour running time fly by. This year, Shakespeare Festival is selling boxed lunches, and Schlafly, the official beer of the Festival, is back with a "Forbidden Ale." Admission, as always, is free, but you can pay $10 - $20 for reserved seating. If you’ve never been exposed to much Shakespeare, this is a golden opportunity. If you have, it's a production worth seeing with a picnic lunch under the stars.

• It seems that the sea lions from the St. Louis Zoo across the street wanted to get in on the action on opening night, adding their own unique vocals to the mix. That was fun.

Juliet (Sigrid Wise)
and the Nurse (Jane Paradise).
Photo credit: J. David Levy

Written by William Shakespeare
Music Composed by Dust Ensemble
Directed by Elena Araoz 
Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park
through June 24| tickets: FREE; Premium seating: $10 - $20
Performances nightly at 8pm, except Tuesdays; 6:30pm Green Show

Chorus/Peter/Apothecary: Patrick Blindauer
Ensemble: Harrison Farmer
Lady Montague: Patrice Foster
Ensemble: Esmeralda Garza
Friar Laurence: Gary Glasgow*
Tybalt: Dakota Granados*
Balthazar: Karl Hawkins
Lord Montague: David Heron*
Nurse: Jane Paradise*
Romeo: Reynaldo Piniella*
Lord Capulet: Michael James Reed*
Lady Capulet: Cherie Corinne Rice*
Benvolio: Antonio Rodriguez*
Friar John: Chris Ware
Mercutio: Terrell Wheeler*
Prince/Paris: Pete Winfrey
Juliet: Sigrid Wise

Romeo (Reynaldo Piniella) and Juliet (Sigrid Wise).
Photo credit: J. David Levy
Stage Manager: Emilee Buchheit*
Assistant Stage Manager: Nikolas George Brown*
Text Coach: Joanna Battles
Fight Choreographer: Paul Dennhardt**
Costume Designer: Dottie Marshall Englis***
Artistic Line Producer/Assistant Director: Kristin Rion
Props Master: Laura Skroska
Scenic Designers: Margery & Peter Spack/Studio Spack
Sound Designer: Rusty Wandall
Lighting Designer: John Wylie

* Denotes member of Actors’ Equity Association, the Union of
Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States
**Member, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society
***Denotes member, USA Local 829

Daniel Ocanto
Sean Smith
Graham Ulicny

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