By Lynn Venhaus
Behold the youthful energy that lights the fire of William Shakespeare’s classic big love. Erik Peterson and Evie Bennett burn bright as the besotted star-crossed lovers at the heart of St. Louis Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
The dynamic pair immediately signal that this is not your mother’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the one they were forced to read in high school English accompanied by Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film. None of those stuffy 16th century trappings here.
This post-modern adaptation of the seminal romantic tragedy takes place in Verona, Italy, where the Capulets and the Montagues are two wealthy and powerful feuding families. This is not a hybrid version, for the entire cast is in contemporary garb, suitably outfitted by costume designers Amanda Handle and Tracy Newcomb.
This reinvigorated production, at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in the Kirkwood Community Center, is stripped down, with a barebones set designed by Cris Edwards and an essential characters’ only cast, with one actor filling another minor role and the Montagues combined into one parent.
An exuberant Peterson, boyishly handsome like the 1996 Leonardo di Caprio in Baz Luhrman’s bold movie interpretation, bounds on stage and quickly engages as the impulsive, idealistic, smart, and sensitive Romeo.
He is joined by his swaggering posse of peers, also ready to rock – and rumble. Quinn Spivey excels as lively loyal friend Mercutio while Emma McDonough is an assured, convincing cousin Benvolio.
They crash the Capulet’s ball, where Romeo is struck by a lightning bolt, seeing the beautiful Juliet, and he is soon in pursuit of the fair maiden. Bennett projects the innocence necessary, and shows some gumption, guiding her destiny and with an inner strength that will appear when she’s arguing with her mother.
Infatuated with each other, the couple’s epic serenade commences, and the actors bring the yearning, swooning and thunderstruck emotions out in their lovesick characters. Outside interference will ruin their happily-ever-after plans – and the inevitable comes soon enough, so they must shift emotions with their one heartbeat.
Director Blake Anthony Edwards’ work on the leads’ character development is admirable, and the kids’ blaze with glory, for the most part. He keeps the action moving, managing the time well.
Nic Tayborn started out strong as the noble Count Paris, Juliet’s rich admirer favored by her parents, but as the plot becomes more complicated, then politely goes through the motions.
He’s fine participating in the fight scenes, which are expertly choreographed by Dennis Saldana. The combat is authentically staged.
While a female Benvolio worked well, the gender switch with Tybalt came across as less successful, with Jade Collins playing Juliet’s loyal but hot-headed first cousin. The change in pronouns is made in the dialogue.
The escalation of the Mercutio-Tybalt conflict is such an integral part of this story that it is crucial to portray them as fiery enemies. (Think how important the rivalry between Riff and Bernardo is in “West Side Story.”)
The experienced Donna Parrone brings an earthy, feisty energy to the Nurse role, resonating as Juliet’s confidante and providing a pinch of bawdy humor. She transmits her grief well as her heart breaks over the unfolding tragedy.
As the trusted Friar Laurence who advises Romeo, Nick Freed conveys a genuine gravitas and sincerity.
However, the parents are merely perfunctory in line delivery. Granted, the parents must be the buzz kill in this story, not understanding their children and their long, seemingly senseless, rivalry causing irreparable harm.
But compared to the electric current palpable from the young lovers, they seem devoid of personality. Hillary Gokenbach has more to say as haughty Lady Capulet, given that she and Juliet differ in opinions, than a gentler Lady Montague (Rhianna Anesa). And Lord Montague has been cut out of this version, well, actually the dialogue is merged into his wife’s.
Robert Stevenson as the forceful Capulet isn’t convincing either, as a domineering husband and father who must deal with grief. Emotions should build so that their devastating loss of their only child pulls at our heartstrings.
I think Arthur Laurents was right to cut out the parents in “West Side Story,” for they do not add much – unless they would give their harsh lines some context.
Rounding out the cast are Matthew Kauzlarich as a dutiful(and put-upon) Peter, servant to the nurse, and Don McClendon, imposing as Prince Escalus, who oversees the town.
Good work is evident from sound designer Tori Meyer and sound operator Kevin Doerr. The music that punctuates the performance, especially the end song of “Sorrow” by The National, is a noteworthy addition.
John “JT” Taylor’s lighting design enhances the shifts in mood and tone.
“Romeo and Juliet” is estimated to go back to 1595 and has been interpreted in many ways since then – in music, art, dance, literature, theater, and film. There is even an animated movie with gnomes – “Gnomeo and Juliet” in 2012, and Taylor Swift refers to the archetypes in her song, “Love Story.”
To keep this story fresh and meaningful after 500 years is a challenge, but Peterson and Bennett win over the audience, with several other key high notes standing out.
St. Louis Shakespeare hasn’t been back on the boards since before the pandemic’s first wave, so applause for getting back into the swing, and for the enthusiasm about presenting this production.
“Romeo and Juliet” is being presented Feb. 10 – 20 at the Reim Auditorium at the Kirkwood Community Center, 111 S. Geyer Road, in Kirkwood, Mo. Evening performances are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. For more information, www. Stlshakespeare.org Tickets available at brownpapertickets.com or at the theatre box office, which opens 1 hour prior to showtime. Call 314-361-5664 or email [email protected] if you have any questions.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat daily newspaper. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association.