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Theater Reviews

Sep 19, 2001 - Nevada Shakespeare Festival's Excellent "Romeo and Juliet"

By Jack Neal

The Nevada Shakespeare Festival's "Romeo and Juliet" is a thrilling reminder of the heights Shakespeare can reach in the hands of gifted performers and an innovative director.

If the company's excellent "Romeo and Juliet" is its standard for achievement, the Nevada Shakespeare Festival is a Shakespeare festival to be reckoned with. Last Friday's (9/14/2001) performance was outdoors nestled comfortably, if tentatively, in the Hawkins Amphitheater at Bartley Ranch in southwest Reno.

It had many reasons not to be good. Other than Friday and Saturday performances in Reno, the amphitheater isn't where "Romeo and Juliet" is going to play (it'll have a six-week run at Piper's Opera House in Virginia City) or where the company has rehearsed. Other than six moveable benches the production was played without the sets it will have when it reaches its permanent venue. Nor was there any setting or focusing of lights. Those obstacles, in addition to having too few rehearsals with the uncomfortable possibility of lines being fed by a prompter or under-rehearsed sword-fight scenes to be stopped if an accident occurred, were just a few of the precursors against success director David Ellenstein mentioned in his public comments just before opening curtain.

"Then why are we here?" many must have thought. Mr. Ellenstein should be in politics. Few have heard so many excuses from someone outside Washington, D.C.'s beltway about something that had not yet happened. Happily, no excuses were necessary.

After the normal settling in it takes for most good (or great) plays to take flight, Mr. Ellenstein's production began to soar. The theatrical magic this gifted director bestowed upon his talented cast took hold and one of Shakespeare's best known tragedies, and his finest love story, played out in a near seamless manner.

The result of this stripped-down endeavor is unimpeded storytelling with moments, imagined images and performances to treasure. Roderick Dexter in Capulet's harsh patriarchal rebuke to Juliet's mooning teenage nonsense is one treasure. Lynne Griffin's comic, yet tender Nurse is another. Jason D. Rennie's prideful Tibalt, itching for a fight is very solid. J. Todd Adams's antics as Mercutio and his beautifully acted death scene (with superbly choreographed sword play by Jason D. Rennie), plus his wondrously etched Escalus (there's lots of double casting) are both first-rate characterizations and then some. Fine also are Sean Robert Cox's counsel as Benvolio, and James C. Anderson's conflicted Friar Laurence. Then there are all those other scrupulously played parts by a remarkably well balanced cast, creating a gripping environment in which Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers can move poetically and poignantly to their doom.

Jeffrey Cannata and Katie Sweeney are cast as the tragic couple. Both are splendid, with all the youthfulness it takes to make two actors into teenage lovers who are believeable. Sweeney's abandon in surrendering herself to her role tenderly endears. Caught between teen vulnerability and womanly sensuality she gives herself willingly to whatever love will send her, including suicidal grief. Cannata's Romeo is equally as rapturous and disarming, capturing a young man's anguish in love but without the wherewithal to protect the object of his heart's desire.

The action moves fluently through the binding force of Ellenstein's direction. The pace never sags and the language neither tangles up nor pales from familiarity. All is fresh and touching.

This lovely presentation is a reminder of why Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" remains a classic tribute to the lyricism of over-full hearts and a love onlookers can long for, but not themselves die for.

The Nevada Shakespeare Festival's "Romeo and Juliet" opens at Piper's Opera House in Virginia City, Nevada, Thursday, September 20, 2001, and plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., with some special performances, through October 31. For information call 775-847-0600.

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