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Chesapeake Shakespeare Co. performs 'Romeo and Juliet' at Patapsco Female Institute

By Mike Giuliano

5:10 PM EDT, June 19, 2012

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The ill-fated lovers in "Romeo and Juliet" are the victims of a family feud, but at least their love has been immortalized in Shakespeare's tragedy. Their enduring romance holds up in an outdoor production by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company that fortunately includes an all-important balcony that has been temporarily attached to the stabilized ruins at the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City.

This is a tale of young love. Indeed, the playwright states that Juliet is "not yet 14." However, you can rest assured that this production does not take the Bard at his word. Juliet is played by an adult actor, the girlishly petite Rachael Jacobs, who portrays the character as a young woman whose youthful enthusiasm serves as a reminder that Juliet's love for Romeo will prompt her to break every parental rule in the book.

Although Romeo presumably is slightly older than Juliet, he's so enamoured of Juliet that his puppy love proclamations also stress their youthful energy. Julian Elijah Martinez is a lean and limber Romeo, which comes in handy for both his balcony-climbing duties and the pesky swordfights that often keep him from being with Juliet.

Both actors have a sure command of their lines, further reinforcing the sense that Romeo and Juliet are destined to find a way to be together. Romeo comes from the Montague family and Juliet from the rival Capulet family, but the enterprising young lovers resort to enough clever ruses to make any misbehaving high school senior seem like a rank amateur.

Although the central love story is solid here, other aspects of the production directed by Jenny Leopold are less secure. The large supporting cast tends to be uneven, for instance, with performances that therefore don't meld into a seamless ensemble.

Those who bring out the emotional vigor of their lines include Molly Moores as Lady Capulet and Kate Michelsen Graham as Juliet's Nurse. The physical exertion necessary in this fight-filled drama is convincingly supplied by Adam Sheaffer as Benvolio, Noah Bird as Tybalt and Blythe Coons as Mercutio.

Contemporary interpretation

Incidentally, casting a female actor in the male role of Mercutio works well. Think of it as an early-21st-century reading of the play that stresses female assertiveness within a male-dominated world. Shakespeare's text remains the same, of course, but it's a culturally contemporary interpretation.

For that matter, having a white actor play Juliet and an actor of color play Romeo is not overtly acknowledged via either the dialogue or its delivery, but audience members are welcome to read whatever they want into the Montague-Capulet squabble.

Most of the cast members are capable, but there are a few ill-considered performances that may indicate larger problems with the overall production.

As Juliet's father, Capulet, Frank B. Moorman looks sufficiently paternal and authoritative, but the actor fails to adequately project his voice. This is no small matter in an outdoor production that has the actors moving across a wide stage and also out onto the lawn — not to mention having to compete with airplanes above and motorcycles below on Main Street. In this respect, while it seems like a good idea to take the action out into the audience, several scenes are so far off to one side or the other that you'll strain to hear what anybody is saying.

Another problematic principal performance is Jose Guzman's antic portrayal of Friar Lawrence. This priest character admittedly lends itself to light-hearted and borderline-foolish acting, but Guzman seems to have stepped out of a"Saturday Night Live"skit; he also delivers enough of his dialogue in Spanish to make you wonder what a Spanish priest is doing in northern Italy in the Renaissance.

Anyway, the larger problem for the production is that a surprising degree of near-slapstick comedy is worked into the play's first act. This silliness may explain why this production never really has the emotional clout one has the right to expect.

Also, a program note observes that a slam poetry expert, Gayle Danley, worked as a "poetry in performance consultant." This mostly seems to translate to the opening and closing scenes in this production, during which the entire cast talks on top of each other to make it seem like a hyperactive community. Far from emphasizing the poetic force, lines get squashed and nearly lost. Some of the play's fighting words are slashed to bits.

"Romeo and Juliet" runs in rotating repertory with an adaptation of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" through July 29 at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah's Lane in Ellicott City. The general performance schedule is Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 6 p.m., but check for specific plays and dates. Tickets are $15- $36; children under 18 free. Call 410-313-8661 or go to http://www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com.