William Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet" is over four centuries old and has been performed in every conceivable place, in every conceivable way.
It’s been in the old spaces in London, the bright lights of Broadway, regional theaters all over the world, colleges, high schools, even grade schools. It’s been several movies and the basis for countless other plays, films and musicals. It’s been done by all male casts and all female casts. It’s been set in modern times, in every decade you can imagine and in some future galaxies far far away.
But in all of those performances, no matter what was done to "juice up the story," it has always remained Juliet’s play.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this play, but I have never seen a Juliet like the one in the James DeVita-directed production that opened Saturday night at American Players Theatre.
Normally, Juliet is played as a fragile leaf, being carried on the gentle winds of her mind while all around her war, hatred and jealousy swirl.
But DeVita’s Juliet, in a stunning performance by Melisa Pereyra, is a young girl with hot blood and a backbone of steel. She is no panting baby searching for something. As young as she is, this is a woman who knows her mind and knows what she wants. She is tempestuous and brave and a joy to behold.
Everyone knows the story. Juliet’s family, the Capulets, are in a constant and violent feud with Romeo’s family, the Montagues. The two young lovers meet by chance, and nothing will keep them from being together. They marry. They each die in the end, their bodies and souls together for eternity.
Make no mistake about it. There is plenty of action in this play, including some of the best sword fighting I’ve ever seen, staged by fight director Matt Hawkins.
Christopher Sheard makes a convincing Romeo, as do the actors playing members of the families and their friends. Milwaukee’s Jim Pickering takes a role that has sometimes been minimized and creates an heroic Prince of Verona.
It is this prince who has one of the most beautiful summation speeches in all of Shakespeare’s world. As Juliet lays dead atop her Romeo, Pickering stands in an aisle, lit with a marvelous gentility.
"A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo."
The speech tugs at the heart and leaves you breathless. "For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo" just drips with everything you’ve ever felt about being in love.
DeVita, who knows a thing or two about playing Shakespeare, dials down the pace of what can sometimes be a frantic play. There is a tendency with this story to sometimes play it with histrionics and melodrama. Not here. The play moves along at a comfortable pace, allowing for the story to bloom fully and to focus on the roiling passions that both bedevil and honor these two families.
There are several things of incredible note in this production, and no review would be complete without giving credit where it is due.
Costumes are often just that, costumes. The most difficult task for any designer is to make clothes that are, well, clothes and not some imitation of a crazy idea of a costume. Designer Rachel Anne Healy has directed an amazing group of artists to clothe all of these actors in apparel that is right for the times, but is also right for real people. There is nothing "costumey" about these clothes, and it’s a truly remarkable achievement.
Josh Schmidt, Milwaukee’s own wizard, designed the sound and wrote some original music for the play. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you where the music played, which is a huge compliment for any sound designer. All I can say for sure is that the score was so warm and smart that it enhanced what was happening on the stage.
Special mention also has to go to actress Colleen Madden, a member of the core company who is having the time of her life this summer and is good enough to let us all share in her fun. Fresh from her breathtaking brilliant turn as Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing," she now has her arms wrapped around the nurse to Juliet.
She moves from hilarity to keening sorrow with such ease and with such studied grace that she creates a character to rival that of Juliet for attention.
But, as I said, this play belongs to Juliet. It is her story, and we are welcomed in, only as temporary visitors. But that is clearly good enough for us all.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.