“Romeo and Juliet” gets a playful reboot for the Richmond Shakespeare Festival

One of my favorite moments in “Romeo and Juliet” comes just after the balcony scene, when Romeo asks Friar Laurence if he’ll help him marry Juliet.

But yesterday you were in love with Rosaline, the holy man responds. Forget her, Romeo says, my love for Juliet is the real deal. The scene isn’t a commentary only on the fickleness of love, but also of young love and its potency.
Romeo and Juliet’s very teen-ness seems underlined in Quill Theatre’s new staging at the Richmond Shakespeare Festival. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to call it a reboot, as Quill staged the play two months ago at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts with a similar cast.

Co-directed by Jan Powell and James Ricks, who took over after Powell had a family emergency, that earlier staging felt hampered by one director trying to enact the vision of another. This new production, under the solitary command of Ricks, suffers from no such double vision. In fact, it soars.

The most obvious difference is in the young lovers themselves, with Tyler Stevens as Romeo and Claire Wittman as Juliet on opening night — trading off the role with Liz Earnest. While the previous Romeo, Nate Ritsema, approached the role as a smoldering teen idol, Stevens plays him as an endearingly charming if slightly awkward young teen. As anyone who saw him in “Brighton Beach Memoirs” at Hanover Tavern two years ago knows, Stevens has a knack for bringing a subdued charisma to leading-man roles.

As opening night’s Juliet, Wittman brings a surprising amount of humor to the character, depicting her as the kind of teen you’d find happiest engaged in a book by Jane Austen. In addition to being the funniest Juliet I’ve seen, the choice also works for the role.

And this Juliet is no fawning flower waiting to be picked. In the balcony scene, Romeo doesn’t climb: Juliet descends. Together, they bring the best-known lovers in Western civilization back down to earth.

The show is a pleasing, straightforward telling of the doomed couple. As in the museum staging, Bo Wilson does sympathetic work as Friar Laurence, nearly a surrogate father to Romeo in this production. Todd Patterson is charismatic but not as over-the-top as Matt Shofner’s earlier Mercutio; both incarnations work well. Also of note is B.J. Wilkinson’s lighting, which heightens the dramatic moments at the show’s close.

The only false note comes with Mercutio’s assault on of Nurse (Melissa Johnston Price). While I’m sure it has precedent on stage, the unwanted honking of Nurse’s breasts plays more like sexual assault than bawdy humor in 2018. The joke is jarring and hasn’t worked in either production.

As his first directorial work as Quill’s artistic director, Ricks has turned in a compelling and uncomplicated take on one of the world’s most popular dramas. Sometimes Shakespeare can feel like a museum piece that’s been gathering dust for decades. This playful, energetic production is far from it. S

Quill Theatre’s “Romeo and Juliet” plays through June 24 at Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Road. For information, visit quilltheatre.org or call 340-0115.


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