There are moments of magic in the Prenzie Players’ Romeo & Juliet, beginning with the first words heard in the prologue: “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene.” These lines are delivered in the midst of a sword fight that spreads across the acting space – the fighters freeze, ethereal music wafts in from above, and Adam Overberg delivers Shakespeare’s well-known introduction, setting the stage for this tale of ill-fated, star-crossed lovers. The moment is stunningly executed, and sets in motion an excitement for what’s to come.
I have longed to see the Prenzies take on the tale of Romeo and Juliet since first experiencing the group’s work in 2008’s The Taming of the Shrew. For this production, directors Tracy and Kristin Skaggs choose to set Verona in a Latin or South American country, a decision evident in Kristin’s costumes and Tracy’s choice of music, particularly during the party in which Romeo first sees Juliet. And with Stephanie Moeller and Overberg in the title roles, the play features two leading performances that delighted me to no end.
Moeller’s Juliet is unlike any portrayal of the character I’ve seen. Hers is not the unplucked flower that I’m accustomed to in representations of Shakespeare’s young girl. Instead, her Juliet is headstrong and independent, not merely enamored with her Romeo, and at the play’s finale, I was uncertain whether Juliet chose her tragic end because she truly loved Romeo, or because she wanted to escape her overbearing parents who demanded that she marry another. (If this Juliet couldn’t live life her own way, she didn’t want to live at all.) That being said, Moeller’s climactic moment of anguish when she awakens from her deathlike slumber is convincingly strong, leaving no doubt that this young woman truly mourns her lover’s death, whether or not she really loves him.
In contrast, Overberg’s Romeo is fully overwhelmed by Juliet. The actor is exceptional at portraying the change in this young man after he becomes infatuated with this young woman; oblivious to the familial relationships (and hardships) around him, he appears to see no one but Juliet. Meanwhile, when he’s shaken from his love-filled dream, Overberg is credibly impetuous, as is common with men of Romeo’s age. There is a distinct duality between Overberg’s “everyday” Romeo and his smitten one.
While Romeo & Juliet is the quintessential tale of love, I’ve long questioned the reality of the love at the core of Shakespeare’s story: Can two people really find true love in a single meeting? A love so strong that, four days after their introduction, they’re willing to take their lives for each other? I say no; to me, Romeo and Juliet are enamored with one another to the point of emotional intoxication, at best. And Moeller and Overberg are the first actors I’ve seen to portray their relationship in this manner, with Moeller’s Juliet almost treating Romeo as “just another suitor” – her latest distraction and chance to rebel against her parents – and Overberg’s Romeo seeming to be merely besotted by Juliet’s looks, overcome by her without truly knowing her. (He is clearly lost in a cloud of emotions that could eventually grow into, but is not yet, love.) Moeller and Overberg make their characters’ relationship truer to life than the overly romanticized versions of the affair I’m used to seeing.
What I’m also unused to seeing is such chemistry between Mercutio and Benvolio (here gender-bent to Benvolia), a chemistry shared here between J.C. Luxton and Maggie Woolley. Changing the male Benvolio to a woman creates entirely different dynamics for the character’s relationships. Benvolia is sometimes flirty with Romeo, rather than just being his best friend. Her friendship with Mercutio, however, is downright sexual; the two share the familiarity of lovers, or two very close friends whose relationship is leading, distinctly, in that direction. The power of this dynamic is most evident in Mercutio’s death scene, which here is made much more poignant, more moving, as Benvolia attempts to physically hang on to his life to keep it from slipping away. Woolley’s weeping is intense, as if Mercutio’s passing is the greatest loss Benvolia could experience.
As is typical with a Prenzie Players show, I find myself at my word limit with so much more to say. With more space, I’d applaud Angela Rathman’s turn as Juliet’s nurse, Angelica. And Matt Moody’s nonchalant Capulet servant, Peter Sampson. And Andy Koski’s confident Tibalt. And Jarrod DeRooi’s humorously effeminate Paris. And ... .
For information and tickets, call (309)278-8426 or visit PrenziePlayers.com.