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Summer Youth Shakespeare Theatre gives it their best in 'Romeo and Juliet' at Laurel Mill Playhouse

It's been performed hundreds of thousands of times on stages worldwide, in classrooms, on the big screen and on television, and, since June 29, William Shakespeare's classic "Romeo and Juliet" is being revived at Laurel Mill Playhouse. The show runs through July 15.

The play is part of the theater's annual Summer Youth Shakespeare Theatre series, which means all of the characters are middle and high school students.

The stage setting for the well-known play about the doomed love affair of two teenagers whose families hate each other is sparse. There's a two-level white lattice-style fence, adorned with flowers in a corner of the stage that's used as the famous balcony where Romeo and Juliet profess their love for each other during various acts of the play. That, and a bed that's used as Juliet's resting place after she takes a potion to make her appear dead, are the only props on stage, leaving the audience to use its imagination as the young actors enthusiastically deliver their lines. The characters do make good use of the theater's aisle for entrances and exits, as well as the various curtained openings at various points of the stage.

The costumes are to be complimented, and range from elegant, laced gowns and period natty outfits for the men, to the servant attire and corded, authentic-looking religious habit of Friar Laurence, well played by home-schooler Jamal Barringer.

As for the other actors, who could not cheer these young thespians for their efforts in delivering lines that have challenged the most seasoned actors since the play was first published in the late 1500s.

A few of the students appear to not be totally comfortable with the prose of "Romeo and Juliet," which runs the gamut from sonnets, blank verse to the rhythmic cadences of iambic pentameter. But there are several gems in the cast who embrace the language and shift with ease from the play's comedic beginnings to its tragic ending.

Fifteen-year-old Helen Gorman steals the show as the frumpy, plump Nurse. She's Juliet's maid, whose comedic timing and stage presence are a major bright spot in the play. No newcomer to the Playhouse's stage, Gorman, dressed peasant style with several blackened teeth, speaks her lines in an energetic, conversational style and uses her expressive eyes to convey the various emotions her character goes through as the plot thickens. When she dramatically, at one point, tells Juliet she's tired from a long walk, her face and entire body conveys that feeling and she is always on, even when the action focuses on others.

There's also Playhouse regular Chaz Monroe Atkinson, who brings a bundle of energy to the stage as the fast-talking, comical Mercutio.

Dressed in black, shiny knickers and a flashy black and silver vest with a matching hat, Atkinson's Mercutio flits around the stage, pivoting, contorting his body, dancing on tip toe at times and creatively using his hands and voice to wow the audience. He interacts well with the other characters and seems to draw them out whenever he's on stage.

Mike Culhane, a St. Vincent Pallotti High graduate, brings a bit of confidence to the stage as Juliet's father, Lord Capulet. His courtly dress, strong authoritarian voice and stage presence gives the role a bit of believability. After all, these are teenagers, who look their age, playing roles of adults.

As for the characters that bear the play's name, Jackson Sanchez is tall and has the handsome looks of what many young girls probably thought of when they read the play in school. He also has the glossy hair to go along with it and looks like he just came out of a salon.

However, at times, he does seem a bit more concerned about which direction his hair is falling and it at times hides his face, blocking the audience's view as he delivers emotional lines. Sanchez does have strong stage presence, a good grasp of the language and delivers his lines with the right inflections.

His stage love, 16-year-old Alexis Thompson, who plays Juliet, is probably one of the few Juliets to wear glasses on stage. The wispy teen, with waist-length hair, seems to enjoy the role, although her soft voice at times did have to compete with the theater's loud air conditioning. This is Thompson's 10th Playhouse performance and although she starts off a bit slow, she gets stronger as the play progresses. She delivers her lines with ease, but plays a somewhat meek Juliet. That interpretation of the role is emphasized with this Juliet's uninspiring wardrobe of a peasant-like dress and, later in the play, a drab, shapeless covering of the dress that coupled with the glasses, only added to a less than glamorous persona of an obviously pretty young actor.

For those who love Shakespeare and "Romeo and Juliet," the flaws in this play of young actors will be overlooked. These are young teens after all, but it's obvious they are giving it their best and enjoying it. But, to be sure, as in other versions of this play, the cast had the audience at times laughing and at others, feeling saddened and wishing for a happier ending.

"Romeo and Juliet" continues at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St., Friday and Saturday, July 13 and 14, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, July 15 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $13 for students 18 and younger and senior citizens. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.

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