Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Romeo and Juliet
Great River Shakespeare Festival

Also see Arty's reviews of Much Ado about Nothing and The Music Man

The Great River Shakespeare Festival, now in its twelfth season in Winona, Minnesota, is increasingly being discovered by Twin Cities audiences seeking top rate, highly accessible Shakespeare and other work, accessed by way of a beautiful drive along the Mississippi River for which the festival is named. Last year, 10,793 people attended performances in a 425-seat theater. This year's festival includes Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Julie, and Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie.



Caroline Amos, Silas Sellnow, JuCoby Johnson, Jim Poulos, and Brian White
Romeo and Juliet, the tragic story of star-crossed lovers from two warring families, is not one of my favorites of the Bard's works. I cringe at the repeated times something slight goes wrong, or timing is amiss, or good intentions bring foul results—making the story, drenched in heartache, feel a bit contrived, the type of plot that depends on too many people with too little sense to cause the wheels of despair to brake.

Until now. Great River Shakespeare Festival has staged this Romeo and Juliet with such propulsive energy, strong character development, technical craft, and sense of urgency, that I found myself loving not only the production, but the play.

The place remains some hazy variation of Verona, but moved to the early 1950s, given the design and the sharp tempo of street gangs and a lost generation sick of war and hooking their star on idealized love. I know, Romeo and Juliet has been transformed into a gang story before—brilliantly, at that—in the form of West Side Story. Still, the GRSF production does not feel one iota derivative; it feels like something brand new, and quite wonderful.

One element of this production's success is Mike Munson's score. A favorite in the local Winona music scene, Munson was recruited to compose a score for guitar, drums, and violin that acts as a pulse, a racing clock counting down the minutes, and hours (the entire story happens in only four days) from the love-struck beginning to the calamitous end, with the clear message: this cannot be stopped. To be sure, there are certain scenes where the music takes a tender turn, reflecting the characters' feelings in the moment. But never for long. The clock is ticking on these lives.

And the performances—wow! Benjamin Boucvalt is a lanky, boyish and impetuous Romeo, handsome but not stunningly so. We first meet him brooding over the collapse of his pursuit of another girl, Rosaline, whom we never meet. He goes to the ball given by the Capulets, mortal enemies of his family, the Montagues, thinking she will be there, but in a heartbeat, Rosaline is forgotten and his being is consumed by Juliet. The ball is for Juliet's sake, that she might become better acquainted with Lord Paris, who has requested her hand in marriage. Juliet, who is only 13 years old (at the time, considered marriageable), is pleasant to Paris, but clearly not interested. Her eyes lock with Romeo's and from there, the rest of the story is proscribed. Carolyn Amos plays Juliet as a willful, even bratty, thirteen year old. In spite of the norms of her society, she is clearly more child than bride. But we see her transformed by Romeo, captive as much to her own urges as to his fixation on her. Both Romeo and Juliet are at an age where they cannot see anything in a greater context—the passion of the moment is everything. Their tragedy, aside from warring families, is their very youth. Both Boucvalt and Amos capture this essence, so that both the exuberance and inevitable destruction of youth are sharply felt.

Michael Fitzpatrick plays Friar Lawrence, confidant to both Romeo and Juliet, whose efforts to support these two young members of his flock drowning in their own emotions are based on the highest ideals, yet prove to contribute to the tragic finale. Fitzpatrick gives the friar a steadiness, an inner light trying to guide the two lovers, until he unravels upon realizing the final truths. Tara Fitzpatrick, as Juliet's nurse, draws out the rich vein of humor in this character, but reveals both her fragility and her strength when faced with the painful realities that have taken hold of her lady's life. Fitzpatrick (getting a double workout as Beatrice in GRSF's Much Ado About Nothing) takes this character far beyond the realm of comic relief to which it is often assigned.

Both exuberance and inevitable destruction mark Jim Poulos' dazzling performance as Mercutio. He is Romeo's best friend, loyal to a fatal fault, but also a partier, jokester, and antagonist. Poulos totally captivates on stage, and it is in contrast to Mercutio's testosterone-driven bravado that Romeo's gentle and romantic persona is forged. Brian White as Benvolio, Romeo's cousin, is of more moderate disposition. He strives in vain to give Romeo more solid ground on which to anchor himself, then recoils in horror at the brutality fueled by the feuding between the families. Robert Ramirez as Lord Capulet, and Rosemary Brownlow as Lady Capulet, Juliet's parents, give strong impressions, each professing to be looking after Juliet's welfare, but in the end allowing social custom, honor, and, in the case of Lord Capulet, fury to lead them. Brownlow's dismissal of Juliet in the wake of Lord Capulet's brutality against both his daughter and his wife is heart breaking.

Doug Scholz-Carlson, Artistic Director of the Great River Shakespeare Festival, has directed this production—splendidly, ferociously—and, moreover, has added his considerable talent as a fight choreographer. When Juliet's cousin Tybalt (played by a seething JuCoby Johnson) challenges Romeo after the Capulet's ball, having seen his cousin with the son of the enemy Montagues, Romeo tries to make peace with Tybalt. When Tybalt mocks him, Mercutio pick up the gauntlet, baiting Tybalt and engaging him in a frenzied duel. No swordplay, however—being the 1950s, switchblades are the weapon of choice. The fight that ensues is thrillingly presented, both balletic and guttural.

The sparse setting is formed from a steel scaffolding turned at various angles to suggest various places, such as a burial crypt and Juliet's famous balcony. The costumes are well designed to reflect mid-century America, though (and this is my only quibble with the production), while the men's clothing looked like late 194's and early 195's vintage, the ladies look more like early '60s—Lady Capulet taking fashion cues from Jackie Kennedy, and the Nurse's outfit like a 1962 airline stewardess. The lighting design is an important component of the play's constant thrust forward, marking the movement from day to night, night to day.

I have come to have very high expectations of Great River Shakespeare Festival's work. This

Romeo and Juliet exceeds even those, and is one the best productions yet from this essential fount of classic theater.

Season XII of Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through August 2, 2015, at the Performing Arts Center, Winona State University, Winona, MN. Tickets: For performance and other events schedule and tickets call 952-474-5951 or go to GRSF.org.

Writer: William Shakespeare; Director and Fight Choreographer: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Scenic Designer: R. Eric Stone; Lighting Design Mentor: Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; Lighting Designer: Martha Carter; Costume Designer: Margaret Weedon; Sound Design Mentor: Matthew Tibbs; Sound Designer: Adam Harris; Properties Director: Nikki Kulas; Composer: Mike Munson; Stage Manager: Daniel Munson; Text/Vocal Coach: Terry Weber; Choreographer: Tarah Flanagan; Assistant Director: Stephen M. Miranda; Assistant Costume Designer: Caitlin McCarthy; Stage Management Intern: Kimberly Carolus; Production Manager: Joseph Millett; Technical Director: Megan Morey

Cast: Caroline Amos (Juliet), Benjamin Boucvalt (Romeo), Rosemary Brownlow (Lady Capulet), Michael Fitzpatrick (Gregory, Friar Lawrence), Tarah Flanagan (Nurse), Christopher Gerson (Chorus, Prince, Peter), JuCoby Johnson (Tybalt), Chris Mixon (Lord Montague, Friar John), Mike Munson (Musician), Jim Poulos (Abram, Mercutio, Watch), Robert Ramirez (Lord Capulet), Silas Sellnow (Sampson, Paris), Brian White (Benvolio, Watch).

Musicians: Mike Munson (Guitar and Vocals), Zac Barbieur (Drums), Silas Sellnow (Violin)


Photo: Dan Norman


- Arthur Dorman


Also see the season schedule for the Minneapolis - St. Paul region


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