Could there be anything lovelier than seeing Romeo and Juliet in a gorgeous outdoor setting by a couple of ponds as an accomplished Shakespearian troupe presents the richly romantic and tragic story of those star-crossed lovers? After all, the Ohio Shakespeare Festival has been churning out exceptional productions of Shakespeare’s works on the grounds of the Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens for many years. So how could it miss?
Well, this is theater and things happen. And in this instance, many decisions made by director Nancy Cates wind up making this R&J substantially less memorable than it ought to be.
But before we get to that, there’s a substantial sliver of good news. In the role of the Nurse to Juliet, Lara Mielcarek is both hilarious and quite touching as she tends to the needs of her teenage charge. Mielcarek takes this character and finds every nook and cranny of interest, enabling the character to blossom in all the right ways.
This is exactly what doesn’t happen with the title roles. Joe Pine (Romeo) and Tess Burgler (Juliet) are long-term OSF company members, and they each have been brilliant in the past, in multiple shows. But in this production, directed by Nancy Cates, they’ve taken these two teens (Juliet is supposed to be 13 and Romeo a few years older) and turned them into wisecracking, very adult-seeming creeps in the first act.
Sure, it’s great if you can make a Shakespeare play accessible, and have fun with the characters. But it’s hard to find any innocence in these two, as portrayed by actors (especially Pine) who don’t exactly look like tender young folks. The bald-headed Pine has developed a reputation for being strong willed and self-possessed on stage, two qualities that don’t work so well for exploring Romeo’s swoony vulnerability.
Tess Burgler is an equally powerful presence on stage, but in this play she rattles off Juliet’s lines in the first act like a smartass 30-year-old divorcee with a drinking habit. It’s virtually impossible to look at this characterization and find any of the tenderness and delicacy of a middle-school girl in the late middle ages thrown into a romance for the ages.
Of course, this all has to change in Act Two when things start getting serious, but that turn is never made satisfactorily. This leaves the tragic final scene much less affecting than it should be.
What we are seeing here is, possibly, the “Greenshowing” of OSF’s work. For quite a few years, some of the less-featured members of the company have presented delightful songs and parodies in the Greenshow that precedes each performance. These bits poke fun at Shakespeare and are often a hoot. But now, it seems that cavalier, go-for-broke Greenshow attitude is being applied to the actual play. And if Romeo and Juliet is an example, it isn’t working very well.
This is seen clearly in the performance of Ryan Zarecki as Romeo’s trusted friend Mercutio. Zarecki has also had many wonderful moments on the OSF stage in the past. But here, he is working so hard to cadge laughs from the audience that his character’s persona is bulldozed in the process.
Indeed, when Mercutio lays down his life for Romeo in a duel with Tybalt, we don’t get the sense of the deep loyalty Mercutio feels. And that softens the impact of the rest of the play, as doom descends. Sadly, once Mercutio is dead we can’t watch Zarecki do any more hair-flipping—a talent that he has mastered, rivaling the storied hair-flips of Justin Bieber and Anna Camp.
This time around, even the Greenshow itself feels a bit shopworn. And it isn’t helped by OSF’s current fascination with (and borderline fetishizing of) hyper-realistic stage combat. Sword fights are featured in the Greenshow, and in the play itself, and are becoming as boring as well-choreographed pro wrestling takedowns.
Perhaps it’s natural for a theater company to take what has worked well in the past and then overdo it as time goes on. The solution is very simple: Go back to exploring the characters, and telling their story with creativity and passion. I call it the Lara Mielcarek Rule.
Romeo and Juliet
Through July 15 at the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, 100 S. High St., Akron, 888-718-4253, ohioshakespearefestival.com