The setup: This tale of star-crossed lovers was written toward the end of the 16th century by William Shakespeare, and has captivated audiences ever since. The titular roles in Romeo and Juliet have attracted and challenged actors over the centuries as well, leading to the witticism: "By the time an actress is old enough (i. e., has learned enough about life) to play Juliet, she is too old to play Juliet."
The principals are teenagers, 14 and 13, but they are making adult decisions, though some of these are rather rash.
Critics have often been forgiving of older women playing Juliet - Katharine Cornell had a triumph in it in 1934, when she had turned 40 - but not always - Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh performed it in a New York City production in 1940, and were labeled by one critic as "mutton disguised as lamb."
Aging is not a problem in the production from the University of St. Thomas, as the cast is composed of student actors in the Drama Department.
The execution: The set is simple: an authentic-looking stone wall, with entrance arches at the rear on both sides of a raised stone tomb. It is soon filled with pulsing humanity, as the play's director, Eric Domuret, marshals his forces, and sends enthusiastic young actors hurtling onto the stage. The play begins with a brawl and swordplay, quite well-staged.
A technical difficulty intervened, as smoke added to enhance the onstage melee set off the alarms of the smoke detectors, dutifully doing their job. My assumption is that the director will forego the smoke, and that the brief interruption won't happen again.
Shakespeare laces even tragedies with rich humor, and this work is no exception.
Domuret has wisely decided to mine this classic for wit and good-humor, and accordingly has set it in modern dress. Romeo sports a number of tattoos, and Juliet enters on a skateboard. The archaic language remains, and seems an anomaly with the contemporary dress, but I quickly adjusted, and accepted this.
With a plethora of female students, two key male roles, Mercutio and Benvolio, are filled by females, These characters are companions of Romeo, and are of the Montague clan, as is Romeo. For those unfamiliar with the plot, the Montagues and the Capulets are feuding, and, since Juliet is a Capulet, her relationship with Romeo must be clandestine. Tybalt, a Capulet, kills Mercutio, perhaps unwittingly, in a brawl, and in turn is killed by Romeo, with these deaths fueling the plot.
Amelia Templeton portrays the key role of Mercutio. Templeton gives a strong, even a bravura performance, capturing the energy and swagger of a young buck. Unfortunately, Templeton seems a shade too aware that she is giving a strong performance. I liked best Kyna Hogan as Benvolio, as she caught the Shakespearean rhythm of speech better than the others.
Andy Santos as Lord Capulet has a strong stage presence, and a powerful, stentorian voice, and I look forward to seeing him in leading roles - if he can control an impetus to shout, hardly necessary given his considerable ability to project.
Kathleen Smith as Juliet is attractive and vulnerable, and captures her youth and innocence, but she fails to project her voice, and I never sensed that she was a protagonist instead of a spear-carrier. I quite liked Emanuel Nguyen as Romeo, as he created an interesting, consistent character and stayed with it, playful, a bit overbearing, but still with the inner authority of a leading man. He never grasped the Shakespearean rhythm, but that is so often the case with actors that I should probably forget it - I won't, as the right rhythm also clarifies the meaning.
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Garret Soto as Tybalt is stern and serious, and Aaron Westbrook as Peter, a suitor for Juliet, looks the part but fails to project his voice. Mason Burruss as Friar Laurence seems far too stiff, perhaps even awkward.
The raised tomb upstage foreshadows the tragic ending, and, between poison and a dagger, several deaths seem inevitable. These are shown by flashlight, not Domuret's most inspired choice. But these are minor flaws, as Domuret keeps the pace energetic and the action flowing. The director wisely went for the fun as far as possible, and created a teen-age frolic atmosphere until the plot inevitably turned inescapably somber.
A modern-day setting works well, and youth and vitality convey a powerful narrative. Relax and enjoy the fun - you may see in time a deeper, more-intense production, but in the interim, this will more than serve. Romeo and Juliet continues through November 15 at the University of St. Thomas - Jones Hall, 3910 Yoakum, Nov. 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 15, $5 to $15, 713-525-3520, stthom.edu.