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Fine acting, fresh twists enliven familiar tale in 'Romeo and Juliet'

Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" is perhaps the world's best-known love story — a tragic tale of forbidden love between teenagers from warring families.

Consequently, any producer offering his or her own presentation must bring new insight and a fresh approach, a tough act for a story that has withstood the ages.

Aware of this daunting challenge, Compass Rose Theater founding artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne, who serves in its production of "Romeo and Juliet" as producer and director, noted the necessity of "creating a production that would tell the story in an authentic and powerful way."

Convinced that "Romeo and Juliet" is suited to Compass Rose's teaching mission, Merry-Browne cast very young actors in the title roles — 14-year-old Sydney Maloney as Juliet and 17-year-old Eli Pendry as Romeo.

In an equally innovative and daring move, Merry-Browne cast females in traditionally male roles. Females take on roles as Romeo's friends and skilled swordsmen, and as Prince of Verona — adding dynamic energy and excitement to the production.

On the Compass Rose artistic team, fight director Casey Kaleba deserves praise for creating frighteningly authentic sword-fight scenes. Each scene is executed precisely by a skilled cast, tutored to perfection by Kaleba, who is credited with "arranging violence for more than 300 productions."

Costume designer Julie Bays meets the challenge of creating workable costumes for the four actresses in "pants roles" – from the responsible, devoted Benvolio to the sleek, exciting Mercutio. Also delightful are the lively prints of costumes designed for Juliet's nurse. Costumes for the Capulet women range from Juliet's dresses of suitably girlish simplicity to Lady Capulet's gowns, which fall a bit short of Italian renaissance elegance.

Megan Lang's lighting design intensifies drama in scenes between the young lovers and creates a gentle sunrise and glowing starlight, along with aesthetic breaks between scenes.

Merry-Browne understands that for this production to stir audience excitement, the familiar story of star-crossed lovers must be lifted from preconceived notions and injected with contemporary reality of teenage passions that sweep away all caution.

She succeeds by focusing on a modern pulse for each scene, highlighting youthful humor and passion so the audience identifies with the couple's all-consuming joy.

The director achieved the needed spontaneity in her choice of actors as Romeo and Juliet. A product of Compass' Young Actors' Studio, Pendry impressed audiences in "Lost in Yonkers" and again in the troupe's most recent "Look Homeward Angel."

His past performances pale when compared to his transcendent Romeo, which has a natural spontaneity and credibility. At times, his delivery might benefit by a softening in tone — but that might also sacrifice some of its youthful power and passion.

Maloney is a touching Juliet, credible in her innocence when displaying caution as she first meets Romeo, followed by her awakening passion. Buoyed by Pendry's gripping portrayal of Romeo, Maloney's Juliet gains strength as she defies her father's plans for an arranged marriage to Count Paris.

As Juliet's nurse, Renata Plecha brings currency to the production as she injects needed humor to lighten otherwise glum scenes.

Another adult character sympathetic to the couple's plight is Friar Lawrence, well played by veteran actor and Compass Rose favorite Thomas C. Hessenauer. He brings warmth to this compassionate priest, with kind intentions and infinite resourcefulness to solidify the couple's romance.

As pivotal character Tybalt, Michael Robinson conveys Juliet's hot-headed cousin's animosity for the Montagues, animating a level of swordsmanship that expresses his loathing of Romeo.

Romeo's friend Benvolio is played by Shaina Higgins, who delivers a sensitive, compelling portrayal of Romeo's confidant.

Brenna Horner has a needed statuesque grace and vocal authority — plus notable acting skills — to portray a credible Prince of Verona, capable of subduing Montague-Capulet brawls by a few authoritative words.

Emily Kaye Lynn is stunning as Mercutio, stealing every scene she graces, most especially in her vigorous sword play as flawless as her delivery of Shakespeare's dialog.

This production demonstrates how well Compass Rose succeeds in its mission to transform theater education into performance excellence.

"Romeo and Juliet" continues through April 20, Thursdays through Sundays, at Compass Rose Theater, on 49 Spa Road, in Annapolis. Tickets can be ordered at compassrosetheater.org or by calling 410-980-6662. There's a $10 off promotion for all tickets purchased Friday, March 28 through Sunday, March 30 at the website.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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