Young Romeo relishes role of a good guy


"Arrghh! Garlic. This is really garlicky," Christopher Mark Johnson says through a mouthful of linguine.

As most would agree, for the man playing Romeo at the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, this could be an issue of extreme importance. "I've got to kiss Juliet about six times this afternoon," he says.

But Mr. Johnson continues to look longingly at his dish of mussels in spicy marinara sauce served over noodles and, eventually . . . takes another bite.

A big bite.

"I'll just have to get breath mints," he says with a shrug.

This is a modern Romeo. Not tall, not short, Mr. Johnson fits anyone's definition of handsome. He is dressed in a forest-green linen shirt and beige pants. He wears his brown wavy hair swept back from his face. He speaks passionately about the great bard in a mellow Australian accent that makes "right" come out sounding like "roight."

Although he keeps an apartment in New York, Mr. Johnson is in town for the rest of the summer while he plays one of the most famous romantic roles of all time -- the male lead in "Romeo and Juliet," which will open tonight at Loyola College.

He arrived here on July 2, and rehearsals began the same day. The schedule has been "pretty tough," he says. "I usually like five to six weeks to do a Shakespeare, and here we did it in 3 1/2 ."

After all, there are lines to be learned, costumes to be fitted, battles to be blocked out. "During rehearsals, I live a very regular existence -- up in the morning, off to work and back home again," he says. After the show opens, though, every night is a stage night, and life becomes a "vampiric existence."

As Mr. Johnson lingers over lunch, discussing drama at Donna's restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art, it's easy to understand why his last few roles have been romantic leads -- or at least, as he puts it, one of the "good guys."

It is, in fact, the second time this year the actor, 24, has been cast asRomeo. Just last month, he finished playing the Shakespearean hero at the Mill Mountain Theatre in Roanoke, Va.

Mr. Johnson also has portrayed Malcolm in "Macbeth" and Prince John in Ron Daniel's "Henry IV, Parts I and II." Last year, he got to be a "hip-shakin' cool" Elvis in Steve Martin's "Picasso at Lapin Agile" with the American Repertory Theatre.

As far as capturing romantic leads, he says, being young doesn't hurt. And for now, it's an interesting switch: As a student at

Brown University, Mr. Johnson was often cast as a sinister character -- perhaps because everyone he was competing with was his age.

These days, however, he's often the youngest man to audition for a production, and directors take one look and think "young . . . romantic . . . lead."

The son of a banker from Fiji and an art gallery owner from Massachusetts, Mr. Johnson fell in love with drama as a boy growing up in Sydney, Australia. He and a friend often amused themselves by writing tiny plays and producing them for their parents.

The plays, he says, fell short of great art but inevitably included "cool fistfights."

His next step was getting spots in television commercials and landing a part at age 13 in an Australian TV show called "Top Kid." The plot of that show resembled the plot of the 1994 movie "Quiz Show," Mr. Johnson says.

In it, good kids and bad, cheating kids participated in a trivia contest. "I was the bad guy," Mr. Johnson says, and grins.

At the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, however, Mr. Johnson is the --ing, albeit tragic, hero.

Shakespeare's play tells the story of two Italian families -- the Montagues and the Capulets -- that have long feuded.

Romeo, a young member of the Montague family (who is initially in love with another woman) sees Juliet, the daughter of a Capulet, at a party. The two fall in love, of course, only to confront the barrier of their families' feud.

Undaunted, they agree to marry each other the very next day. The plot takes various twists before the lovers meet their tragic end.

"This play is romantic in every sense of the word. Not just the love sense but in all ways," says Mr. Johnson. "Everyone is in conflict. It's about a really hard world, but in all this conflict there are these two people who fall in love despite it all. That's romantic."

And it seems that no matter how many times Juliet asks this Romeo "What's in a name?" he remains entranced by Shakespeare's words.

"Shakespeare is the best. No one I can think of wrote 37 plays in which there's not a word wrong. Every minute you just go 'Wow.' "


Where: McManus Theater, Loyola College

When: Opens at 8 tonight with a gala performance; 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; matinees Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.; through Aug. 20; then five performances starting Aug. 26 at Peggy & Yale Gordon Center for Performing Arts, Owings Mills

Tickets: $18-$25; gala is $35

Call: Loyola box office at (410) 617-5024 or Ticketmaster at (410) 481-SEAT

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