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Theater Review: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ presented by The Bard’s Wagon Players

Theater Review: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ presented by The Bard’s Wagon Players

Daniel Rosen as Romeo and Sophie Jacobson as Juliet. Photo by Mandy Gunther.

The summer of 2022 has been a time to reconnect with live theatre, and especially live, community theatre. This year, The Bard’s Wagon Players returned to Reisterstown and Catonsville with a fresh production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” It was directed by Nathan Rosen, someone who clearly knows his way around the play and the language.

“Romeo and Juliet” has suffered from many dumbed-down film versions that obliterate entire plot lines, perpetuating the myth that the play is about the young couple. What Shakespeare strives to show is how their relationship is judged not by their love for each other, but by the society around and against them. If it’s not the hot-headed street thugs, who have nothing better to do than engage in pointless turf battles, it’s the adults who give these punks free rein, while the local cop struggles to keep the peace.

…so good to see people treading the boards again…I hope to see The Bard’s Wagon Players get going again next year!

One of the great strengths of Rosen’s work here is the way he highlights the interference—both well-intentioned and otherwise—that makes it impossible for a Montague boy and a Capulet girl to live happily ever after. Indeed, there are clear signs that a Romeo and Juliet match would not has been such a big deal after all. It was hot gangs, just assumption of enmity, as well as insistence on secrecy, which ultimately doomed them.

Street fights aside, it’s the adults here who think they’re acting in the children’s best interests, but end up making things irreparably worse. Juliet’s Nurse arranges a hooking-up (and a quickie marriage, actually), only to reject her role in it when the going gets tough. Meanwhile, Friar Lawrence, clearly sympathetic, not only arranges a secret marriage but is the mastermind behind the plot to fake Julie’s death so she can skip town with her beau.

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Shakespeare makes a point of complicating this plot and the characters’ situations, tying what appears to be a simple love story in knots. No sooner has Romeo secretly married Juliet than he is sentenced to exile in Mantua for murder. Juliet is promised to another rich boy in town, who faces the prospect of bigamy, but can’t begin to explain the problem to her indulgent parents.

Meanwhile, Friar Laurence’s ingenious plot, involving rare, semi-poisonous herbs (monasteries doubled as pharmacies at the time), falls apart. Lines of communication, once solid, strain and break apart, with the inevitable result of a bloodbath at the Capulet family mausoleum. As a character once said elsewhere, “What we have here is your fundamental failure to communicate.”

Fortunately for the audience, director Nathan Rosen ensures that we can follow the intricate, original plot line. It’s helped immeasurably by some standout performances, starting with Daniel Rosen and Sophie Jacobson in the title roles. Daniel Rosen gives us a Romeo who is a bundle of nerves and a mass of contradictions, who constantly vacillates between melancholy and love and between peacemaking and murder. Jacobson does a great job navigating the treacherous family politics of the Capulet household. She does this in perhaps her best scene, when she has to tell her parents one thing, while in the same breath she makes it crystal clear to the audience what she is. really think.

Hot-headed youth get their due here too with Nick Thompson’s fiery Tybalt, burning through a hint of peace between orders, and Wes Dennis taking a nice turn as Romeo’s BFF, Mercutio. (As Benvolio, the hapless mentor, Jen Sizer does a great job of losing control of everything, no matter what.

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Sean Eustis and Erin Klarner are solid as the Capulet couple, making their grand entrances in their team colors (sweater shirts emblazoned with the immortal red “C” of the Montreal Canadiens—appropriate, given hockey’s reputation for pointless games. A blue Maple Leaf jersey for The Montague layer would not be out of place here). Liana Olear has a lot of fun as Julie’s nurse, bawling away when everyone around her wants her to just get to the point (as if there was anyone). Nathan Rosen plays the Montague patriarch well, and comes into his own in the final scene.

It’s B. Thomas Rinaldi, as Friar Laurence, who anchors the show, delivering the opening monologue (“Two households, both equal in dignity…”) and making it completely transparent, it’s the Friar’s actions that frame much of the action here, tragic and other. His mastery of language also makes his thoughts clear, even in the most difficult situations. Because Rosen is not one to “cut” and instead includes as much as possible, we are able to see, step by step, how the Friar’s best laid plans lead directly to disaster.

Outdoor summer productions like this are always at the mercy of the elements – heat waves and thunderstorms can wreak havoc. But it’s so good to see people treading the boards again and I hope to see The Bard’s Wagon Players get going again next year!

“Romeo and Juliet,” presented by The Bard’s Wagon Players Theater Company, ran 22-24 July 2022 at Hannah Moore Park in Reisterstown, MD and 29-31 July 2022 at Catonsville Community Park in Catonsville, MD. The company is a traveling performance rig and troupe based in Reisterstown, MD and established in 2017.

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