ROMEO & JULIET theatre review

by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
Theatre Jacksonville (TJ) opened its 91st season with Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare’s most performed classic, often referred to as the greatest love story ever told.
The play has been produced many times in our area over the years, and in fact was done twelve years ago on TJ’s stage. With insightful directors and interesting characters, no two productions are every quite the same and this is true under Geoffrey Kershner’s direction. Oh, all the wonderful words and phrases are there, and it is still set in Verona with weapons of daggers and swords, but at an undetermined time in the recent past in a South American setting.
In a pre-show curtain speech, Executive Director Sarah Boone said that the set is the largest ever to be on the stage at Theatre Jacksonville since it was built in 1938. Scenic Designer Kelly Wagoner and Technical Director Jeff Wagoner have created a masterpiece, one certain to be an award winner. It’s worth the amazing ten dollar admission price just to sit for fifteen minutes and marvel at this beautiful creation. (By the way, these incredible ticket prices are possible due to the generosity of the Producing Partner: The River Branch Foundation).
The two stories of the set reach from floor to ceiling and encircle the stage like a horseshoe, with most of the action taking place in center stage. At the top of the set is a large video screen that displays the changing skies (e.g., sunrise, moonlight, evening clouds) for each scene. The walls are warm beige, with shutters in tropical colors of coral and turquoise. Scene changes are done with a brief blackout. The only furnishing needed is a stretcher brought on at the end; no set pieces are required, allowing this show to be fast-paced and allowing broad movements by all the actors.
The leading roles of Romeo and Juliet are played by two young performers who will be adding impressive credits to their resumes. Juliet is played by Janaye Rodgers, an Ed White High School graduate making her community theatre debut. In the future, she will be training with a talent development company in Orlando. Ms. Rodgers is a lovely Juliet and captures all the nuances of changing from a love-struck teenager to a committed bride.
Nick Sacks is Romeo. This Douglas Anderson junior is a familiar face on local stages as Sacks has literally been acting since he was walking. Well known for his performances in musical theatre all over the city, including the Alhambra, The Jacksonville Symphony, and of course Douglas Anderson, Mr. Sacks now impresses us with his dramatic acting ability. His performance displays the subtle layers of character development necessary to be convincing in this role.
Director Kershner has done a little gender bending in his casting. The role of Romeo’s buddy, Benvolio, is wonderfully played by Lisa LaGrande, giving a whole new prospective to this relationship as it becomes obvious that she is romantically drawn to Romeo, while he is indifferent to her overtures.
Larry Knight projects a powerful force of authority as Prince Escalus, and his marvelous voice commands respect from all citizens of Verona.
As the heads of the Capulet clan, Dave Alan Thomas (Lord Capulet) and Staci Cobb (Lady Capulet) are a striking and imposing couple. Mr. Thomas, who spent this past summer performing in London at Shakespeare’s Globe Stage as Macbeth, makes a convincing Theatre Jacksonville debut with this role.
One of the highlights of the play is the encounter between Thomas Trauger as the menacing and frightening Tybalt (a Capulet), and Joe Walz as the immoderate Mercutio (Romeo’s friend). Their fight scene choreographed by Director Kershner was spectacular and the best we have seen in any production.
Performances in the roles of the Nurse and the Friar are outstanding. These two characters are at the heart of the Romeo and Juliet story, as their actions enable the two lovers to marry and to consummate the marriage. The Nurse is played by Sandy Spruney, who reprises the role for which she received a Best Supporting Actress Award in the 1998 version. Her 2010 Nurse is once again wonderful. Fernandina Beach resident, Geoffrey King is excellent as Friar Lawrence, a very demanding part. Mr. King has a lock on clerical roles at TJ, this is third one; the others were Gloss in Beaux’ Stratagem and Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Petra, the maid, is one of the smaller roles, but in the hands of Katina Higgins is a delight to behold. Ms. Higgins has done more with this part than we have ever seen before.
We bet that Neal Thorburn never thought he would play a nerd-like character in a Shakespeare play, but as conceived by the director, Count Paris, a rival suitor for Juliet, is dressed in an argyle vest, a bow tie, and knickers, no doubt to make him less attractive to Juliet.
Others in this fine cast include Michael Fisher (Balthasar), Summer Farhat (Lady Montague), Anthony Hodge (Lord Montague, with an appearance also as the Apothecary), Hays Jacobs (Sampson), Joshua Taylor (Gregory), and Caylor Ventro (Abraham). The stage manager is Lori Drake.
The costumes are by Kimberly Rowan, who has just recently moved to Jacksonville and has an impressive resume with credits in theatre, ballet, opera, movies and television. The non-traditional costumes were interesting and helped define the conflict, with military garb for Prince Escalus. The young Capulet men dress in dark urban blues and grays, and wear heavy dark shoes, the Montagues wear garments that are more rustic and lighter in color, to differentiate between the two houses. The parents of both wear contemporary clothes. Lady Capulet wears white satin trousers, with a long tunic and very high heels, while Lady Montague wears a very simple skirt and top with sandals. And Juliet arrives in a lovely ball gown in a delicate fabric at her parent’s banquet, where she falls in love with Romeo as they dance.
You may have noticed that we have not given a plot summary for two reasons. First the story is universally known. To check out a musical version, see Westside Story. Second, Theatre Jacksonville’s program includes an excellent study guide and complete plot summary.
When you attend this show, you will have the opportunity to win a gift box of Cabot Cheeses; just ask at the information desk in the lobby.
If you want to introduce your children or grandchildren to Shakespeare, then check out the special performances of The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet, on Saturday September 25 at 2:00 pm or Sunday September 26th at 6:30 pm. Tickets are just $10 for adults and $5.00 for children under 12 and any student with a ticket stub from the first 2 weekends of TJ’s Romeo & Juliet.
For reservations, call 396-4425 for either show. Romeo and Juliet will be dying to see you until closing on October 3rd. All seats are only $10.00, so don’t miss this opportunity to see this classic.

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