Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
Whether it’s love at first sight or not, those two teens from Verona are back in town and more familiar than ever. With the surroundings on set looking, we’re sure intentionally a bit scruffy and slightly the worse for wear, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet opened Friday at the University of Michigan-Flint. Indeed, this tale could have happened here, in this time and place. It’s a story that never ages, and its tragic ending is preordained.
Director Janet Haley’s troupe is impressive. Every character is unique and strong. We saw Romeo first – he was there on the stage all along as the audience arrived, writing love notes to a girl he’s sure that he loves but who doesn’t return the feeling. Kyle Clark brings wonderful intensity to this role along with a brash and affectionate impulsivity that will ultimately bring him down.
Most are familiar with the situation in Verona at this time – the warring factions between two families, the Capulets and the Montagues. This strife is local, but it mirrors the strife in any town or state or country when two sides disagree and refuse to negotiate or compromise. Here, it is the youth who cannot resist a fight.
Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio (Joshua Cornea), sets him up to crash a party where he will be able to compare his unrequited love to other girls and see that he has choices. Cornea is steady in this role as he acts to stabilize his cousin’s impetuosity. Throughout, he is a loyal comrade, likeable and concerned. Fatal choice number one: the party is at the house of Capulet. Romeo is a Montague.
Juliet, as played by Michaela Nogaj, is bright, excitable and also impulsive. Her interactions with her affable Nurse (Shelby Coleman) are bubbly and clearly based in history and love. It isn’t surprising when, mid-party, she locks eyes with Romeo and emotional sparks immediately fly. But her cousin Tybalt (Lucas Moquin) has also spotted the interloper and demands his uncle remove him. Moquin plays this angry character well. He emotes Tybalt’s confrontational persona nicely and tees up the bloodshed to come.
Unaware of the strife brewing, Romeo and his pals recap the day led by the usually droll and clever Mercutio. But, Mark Vukelich’s interpretation is abrasive. Even though his costume – black leather jacket and headgear with fingerless gloves – somewhat matches the bawdy, satirical nature of this character, that element of comic raconteur is missing.
The street fights begin on the day of Romeo and Juliet’s secret wedding. As in all Shakespearean tragedies, the stage begins to fill with bodies of the dead. Turf wars are at the heart of them – sound familiar? Of course, the innocent also fall victim just by being there.
Even the church, in the person of Friar Laurence (Andy Eisengruber) although steady and full of counsel, cannot save the day. By the end, the families have lost their future and the town has lost some of its brightest and best.
If there’s a tragic flaw in this story, it doesn’t reside in personality. It’s more likely to reside in circumstance. The stars have aligned to thwart these lovers at every turn. It was sad and awful to watch what we knew would happen unfold. Yet, this production managed to keep it all moving with a relentlessness that kept us glued to the action anyway.
Hopefully audiences will walk away with solutions swirling through their heads. So much could have been done to avert these tragedies. So much can still be done.
Lisa Borton’s set design is imposing and made even more so by Doug Mueller’s lighting. The darkened byways, the glow of horizon, the gloom of the tomb, all contrast with the fleeting brightness of midday and celebration.
Sound was just a bit confusing until we figured out it was the sea that we were hearing in the background. Birds and woodland sounds unfortunately were occasionally mistaken for an errant cell phone conversation that then became distracting.
Still, this is a wonderful, if disturbing, production. It moves smoothly and with nary a slip through the two and a half hours it takes to tell this tale. Do go to see it. You owe it to yourself.
Romeo and Juliet continues at the University of Michigan-Flint today and tomorrow at 2:00 pm and November 6-8. For times, tickets, and information contact the box office at 810-237-6520 or online at umflint.edu/theatredance.