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COMING-OF-AGE STORY: Star-crossed lovers, ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ take over Thalian Hall main stage

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Perhaps now more than ever, a play about people driven apart through differences and ultimately united in the loss that hate causes is perfectly timely.

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Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is arguably one of the most well-known stories in art and literature. To call it one of his greatest hits is at best an understatement. Dram Tree Shakespeare moves from the avant-garde, converted warehouse space of downtown’s McEachern’s—where they held their spring show “King Lear”—to the luxurious and stunning main stage of Thalian Hall with the production of “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Don Baker. Baker has cast two age-appropriate leads as the star-crossed lovers: Malachi Amir Chapman as Romeo and Karen Frances Walter as Juliet. Visually, it makes it incredibly clear to the parents in the audience: Their teenager is now capable of making decisions and mistakes that can alter and even end their lives. Young minds often don’t fully comprehend consequences of their actions.

The Capulet and Montague families are famously involved in a feud that encompasses even the servants of their households. The disturbances on city streets have reached a point to where the prince (Joy James) intervenes. It has to stop. The prince threatens both families and insists upon private meetings with the head of each.

In addition to the feud, each family is concerned with their teenage child’s long-term life plans. The Capulets are arranging a marriage of their daughter Juliet to Paris (Kai Knight), a kinsman of the prince. The Montagues are trying to keep Romeo on a forward path, in spite of his preoccupation with the ladies. They are not the first parents to face such a problem with a teenaged son. Though, this Romeo seems to have a more idealized version of young love than I remember. Lust and sex usually are motivations that figure very heavily into young love interactions. Though these two are discussing sex quite blatantly on stage, they make it sound beautiful and lofty rather than urgent.

It’s no mystery girls mature faster than boys, and for this production it seems Juliet is driving this car rather than Romeo.  He isn’t seducing her so much as following along with her excitement about him. Walter is a good Juliet. I believe her at every turn—to the point of wanting to shake her ‘til her teeth rattled.

There is an old debate about age-appropriate casting with this show: Do you cast leads who are actually the ages of our main characters? Or do you cast more mature and experienced actors who can really convey the depth of what they are saying? Because the language is difficult and challenging, so is coming of age. Sometimes that is a story best understood with a little hindsight. I would be interested to see Chapman in this role in four or five years when he has more experience and understanding to draw from in his actor’s tool box.

For earthly matters, the supporting cast have got them covered. Marie Chonko as Juliet’s nurse steals almost every scene.  Chonko’s nurse cannot stop talking and over-sharing. She’s like that irritating stupid cousin who babbles endlessly about the most inappropriate things imaginable. For entertaining children, she was probably perfect, but leaving her in charge of an impressionable young lady? Well, she shouldn’t be the brains of the operation.

Somehow she agrees to act as a go-between for the young lovers. Hello? As an authority figure, the words “absolutely, no—you are betrothed to another man your parents have chosen, so get your mind out of the gutter and fly right for three more days” should have been the first to cross her lips.  But, no, both she and Friar Lawrence (Kim Ewonus) are stunningly irresponsible in their behaviors.

Friar Lawrence is supposed to be Romeo’s confidant and religious advisor. Though Ewonus infuses him with all the comedic frustration that any reasonable adult would feel enduring a conversation with a love-struck teenager, Lawrence still hatches a plan involving two young people eloping and eventually faking their deaths. Now, mind you, neither kid has any visible means of support. Neither has a clue how to make a living. Both have grown up in the lap of luxury. One has to wonder how exactly he thinks they are going to survive if cut off completely form their families’ money? Yet, again, I wanted to shake the friar.

Ewonus infuses him with so much determination the audience is even prepared to go along with it, despite every rational cell in their adult bodies crying out in protest.

What the hell is in the water in Verona? Think about it: Two teenagers meet, get married and consummate a marriage in less than 36 hours. Seriously. And at least two adults around them collude to help do it. I have dirty dishes that have been soaking in the kitchen sink longer than that.

When not hanging around with questionable friars or trespassing in people’s gardens, Romeo runs around with a group of young blades that include his cousin Benvolio (Benjamin Hart) and another kinsman of the prince, Mercutio (Matthew Carter). Hart’s Benvolio has his hands full trying to keep the young Romeo on the up and up. Though they are cousins, there is clearly the “look after your little brother” sort of relationship. Hart attempts to console, to guide, to reason, and to steer as gently as possible his young cousin. There is just enough of an age difference to visually set up the relationship, and the rest Hart brings to life with an almost unending energy.

As far as male parts written by Shakespeare, Mercutio is in my top 10 favorite—mostly for the Queen Mab speech. Carter weaves it beautifully into the action and makes simultaneously an attempt to cheer up his lovelorn friend Romeo, and an extension of his personality as the friend who must be the center of attention at all times.

For all of Mercutio’s boastful, attention-seeking (and Carter nails a shallow self-centered teenager), possibly the most unappreciated character in this production is Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt (Joseph Basquill). Teetering on the edge of adulthood and adult responsibilities, Basquill’s Tybalt is keenly aware of where lines should be drawn, but he doesn’t have the maturity to enforce those lines without descending into adolescent testosterone-driven acts. Think James Caan in “The Godfather”: He sees what he should be able to accomplish, but he doesn’t understand how to do it with any finesse yet—it’s all too big and brash rather than diplomatic. Personally, if I were Juliet, there were times in my life that I would have loved to have had someone like Basquill’s Tybalt in my corner.

Baker has chosen to stage the play with the Montagues cast as African-Americans and the Capulets as Caucasians. When I first heard that I shrugged and commented I really didn’t find that so shocking in this day and age. Indeed the 2013 Broadway production with Orlando Bloom as Romeo and Condola Rashad as Juliet seemed almost a footnote on that topic.

“Really? In this political climate?” one friend responded.

Fair enough.

Perhaps now more than ever, a play about people driven apart through differences and ultimately untied in the loss that hate causes is perfectly timely. But Baker directs the show like a father, and emphasis is put on the people these children are struggling to become. Rather than harping on the message, he amplifies it, and makes their humanity and desperate coming-of-age the focus. It is a time every parent fears—and he makes it so real. It’s heartachingly painful to watch—the shared humanity of the experience comes through more strongly than if he had hammered the message home with the Capulets wearing Confederate flags.

I mentioned to a friend it would take a lot to surprise me with this show; I have seen “Romeo and Juliet” more times than I can count. But my hat is off to Baker because he did surprise me. He showed something about the script I hadn’t seen before. Instead of seeing it as a love story, he shifted the focus to a coming-of-age story. He achieved showing how a delicate balance in a perfect world can fall apart in an instant.

Romeo and Juliet
Nov. 1-2, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $28
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.

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