Childsplay's Romeo and Juliet is not just for kids. Thanks to crafty staging and a talented cast, all of them able to play persuasively any age or gender, it's an edifying and even entertaining production of this oft-told love story.
At a Sunday matinee populated mostly by underdressed tweens, I got as close as I probably ever will to enjoying Shakespeare (this is the third Romeo and Juliet I've seen this season -- someone bring me a vial of poison!), thanks in good part to director Adam Burke, who has injected a good deal of movement and energy into a staging that folds clever set changes into the action. He's done a keen job of editing the original text, and has punched up Shakespeare's usual puns about heads and maidenheads and love's many betrayals.
This production works because of its overtly presentational style, no doubt meant to engage and instruct its youthful audience, and because all 20-odd characters are played by a cast of five superb actors. They read stage directions aloud, and arrive buttoning themselves into their costumes even as they launch into their speeches, which lends this production the air of a Shakespeare lesson that's nonetheless entertaining.
Romeo and Juliet
Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street
Continues through April 17. Call 480-350-8101.
Tom Burch's gorgeous and functional set design features a vast arch, a wishing well, and several large, movable pieces, all set against a backdrop of constellations that pays tribute to the theater's most star-crossed lovers, and from which a pair of huge red roses is suspended. Although the Moog music accompanying Tybalt and Romeo's duel was hokey, and the annoying metal guitar riff that accompanied each red-scarf-as-blood bit was met with audience guffaws, most of what took place on Burch's set was attractive and well-received.
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Michael Arbuckle is agile in his choreographed fight scenes, and provides powerful counterpoint to Jessica Blaszak's heartbreaking Juliet. Blaszak has made some more typically juvenile choices that make her heroine more real for young audiences (after all, Juliet is barely a teenager, although she's often played as an adult), her suffering more plain.
The principals are well supported. Slade Hall, who has appeared in a variety of roles in several plays this season, finally proves himself an actor here. Among other ensemble roles, he plays Juliet's father with a hardness that makes his later displays of rage and grief all the more effective. Cale Epps is as convincing as Juliet's mother as he is Friar Laurence. And over the years I've run out of adjectives worthy of describing Debra K. Stevens' acting talents. She's best here as Juliet's Nurse, whom she's made earthy and comical in some early scenes.
The instructive performances of Stevens and her Childsplay cronies will, to paraphrase Alan Jay Lerner and My Fair Lady, get you brushed up on your Shakespeare -- and will, even if you're not a fan of the Bard, probably entertain you as well.