Romeo and Juliet | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Romeo and Juliet

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ROMEO AND JULIET, Oak Park Festival Theatre. Star-crossed lovers deserve real stars: this production marks 30 years of Shakespeare outdoors. In Virginia Smith's committed retelling, set in a backwater in Depression-era Dixie, a Hatfield v. McCoy feud turns Romeo and Juliet into a redneck romance. Holly Windingstad's costumes make the 18 cast members look like Walker Evans subjects, while Paul Amandes's folksy score converts Shakespeare's most famous lyrics into bluegrass anthems and rousing Texas two-steps.

The setting takes a toll. Call it prejudice, but the hillbilly accents tend to deflate the rhapsodic moments; the goofy passion of Billy Gill's gracefully gawky Romeo recalls Gomer Pyle--and it's not just the drawl that tends to dumb down the dialogue. Gill brings a boyish innocence to his rapture for Karissa Vacker's excellent Juliet that's part of Smith's plan: she wants to show how love arrests the emotional development of these all-American sweethearts rather than how their forbidden passion makes them more mature than the hateful adults surrounding them.

But whatever the setting, this tragedy is irresistible. Smith's steadfast ensemble rightly takes it seriously, especially Phillip Herrington, whose complex Mercutio is eloquent and persuasive. As Juliet's fussbudget nurse, Betsey Cassell poignantly delivers the agony of a well-meaning go-between. Nick Sandys's equally accurate fight scenes recall newsreels of 1930s labor riots.

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