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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Romeo and Juliet
Arizona Theatre Company

Also see Gil's reviews of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Suicide Club and Oklahoma!

Chelsea Kurtz, Richard Baird and
Paul David Story

The works of William Shakespeare have been being reinterpreted for years now. Setting the famous tragedies and comedies in modern times and switching the genders of the parts are just two of the many ways theatre companies have strived to bring a modern sensibility to these famous plays written over 400 years ago. While some of these updates have been more successful than others, Arizona Theatre Company, who is presenting their first ever production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, gets most things right in their production of this classic tragedy. Changing the setting of the play to the 1960s (yet still set in Verona, Italy) and having two key parts now played by women, both add a vibrancy to what is probably the most famous story of young lovers. With an exceptional cast and impressive creative aspects ATC takes a fresh and daring approach to the tale. However, Shakespeare purists be warned as this is clearly not your grandparent's Romeo and Juliet.

While I have to believe just about everyone knows the story of the play, in case anyone needs a refresher: Romeo and Juliet are each from two long feuding families, the Montagues and Capulets. They meet, fall in love instantly but have to get married in secret due to the issues between their families and the fact that Juliet is to be wed to another. This forces both to grow up quickly. However, duels between opposing sides end in murder, which adds friction to the already troubled relationship between the two families. And the impact of a letter not reaching its intended party results in even more death for both families who are ultimately forced to learn the lesson of the tragic cost of their feud.

Director Kirsten Brandt has done an impressive job in finding a talented cast to portray these iconic characters. Paul David Story and Chelsea Kurtz give refreshing takes on the young star crossed lovers. While the play states that Juliet is almost 14, it doesn't ever clearly say how old Romeo is, and in this production they both appear to be teenagers. While both Story and Kurtz are a few years past their teens, they both have no problem instilling their characters with plenty of teenage moments of exuberance, emotion, and excitability. They also deliver some of the play's most famous lines with a fresh energy that makes them seem anything but stale.

In the supporting cast, there are many highlights, and I especially like how many of the key smaller parts are being played by the same people. For example, Leslie Law humorously plays Juliet's loving nurse with a sharp tongue full of wit but also plays one of the two male roles being performed by women, the Prince, with a refined sense of authority and righteousness. Likewise, Richard Baird portrays Romeo's boisterous close friend Mercutio and also the wise, caring Friar Lawrence, achieving superb performances of both. Law and Baird are giving the two best performances in this production with their ability to navigate Shakespeare's language with a natural ease that makes the language come alive. They also instill their parts with plenty of assured comical moments, especially in the first act, making the tragedy that unfolds in act two even more heartbreaking. Also, Kyle Sorrell gets the fun chance to play two very different parts, the hot-headed Tybalt and the calm Paris, and does so expertly.

Brandt's staging is quite good. She uses David Lee Cuthbert's three large wall panels of colorful projections to sweep us seamlessly from one location to the next, yet also ensures that her cast has the ability to instill Shakespeare's prose with both a lightness and an emotional weight when appropriate. There are only a few small missteps in the direction. First, having a few of her actors also play instruments on the sides of the stage for very brief moments is a bit strange. They play along to the existing prerecorded score by Michael Roth yet don't really add much to it, and sometimes become a bit of distraction to the events unfolding on the stage. My other quibble is in the overuse of humor in act one. There are points when it almost becomes an out and out comedy that, for anyone who has never seen this play before, might be confused with how tragic act two becomes. While the cast is expert in the comical moments, and never crosses the line into broad comedy or caricature, it is jarring at times and almost makes it seem like this has become one of Shakespeare's comedies and not one of his tragedies.

Cuthbert also provides the exceptional lighting, which is very effective. The combination of the projections, lighting, and sound are especially searing in the many moments of death in the play when Roth's sound design screeches and Cuthbert's projections flash red across all three screens. Kish Finnegan's costumes are colorful, vibrant '60s styles that work well with Cuthbert's designs to ground us in the swinging '60s time period of this production.

Not everything works in this ATC production and some who prefer their Shakespeare in a traditional format might be put off by the abundance of humor in the first act (in one scene Friar Lawrence is sneaking a joint). Yet, this is a perfect example of how to update a Shakespeare classic to appeal to a new audience while at the same time providing a fresh take on a play many have seen numerous times before. Even with just a few small quibbles, with an engaging cast, clear direction and a visually impressive production, ATC's 1960s Verona-set Romeo and Juliet is quite impressive.

Romeo and Juliet at Arizona Theatre Company runs through April 12th, 2015, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at or by calling (602) 256–6995.

Director: Kirsten Brandt
Scenic, Lighting and Projections Designer: David Lee Cuthbert
Costume Designer: Kish Finnegan
Fight Choreographer: Brent Gibbs
Original Music and Soundscape: Michael Roth
Casting: Michael Donovan, CSA
Associate Projections Designer: Gregory W. Towle
Production Stage Manager: Glenn Bruner*
Assistant Stage Manager: Timothy Toothman*
Assistant to the Stage Manager: Emma DeVore
Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Mercutio / Montague / Friar Lawrence: Richard Baird*
Capulet / Friar John: Kevin Black*
Ensemble: Sterling Boyns
Lady Capulet / Apothecary: Vivia Font*
Lady Montague: Heather Lee Harper
Ensemble: Hunter V. Hnat
Juliet: Chelsea Kurtz
Nurse / Prince: Leslie Law*
Tybalt / Paris: Kyle Sorrell
Romeo: Paul David Story*
Ensemble: Paul Michael Thomson
Benvolio: Kathryn Tkel*
Ensemble: Silvia Vannoy
Ensemble: Brenna Welsh

*Member Actors Equity Association

Photo: Tim Fuller / Arizona Theatre Company

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix

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