We’ve seen all sorts of “Romeo & Juliet” productions through the years — including wonderful works by Ballet Arizona and Childsplay. So it was hard to imagine, going into Thursday evening’s performance of “Romeo and Juliet” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, that the work could feel truly fresh.
It’s often said that no two theater performances, even of the same show with the same cast, are ever the same — which seems especially wise when dealing with the ways of Shakespeare. Seeing “Romeo and Juliet” at the Utah Shakespeare Festival was like seeing it for the very first time.
It’s fresh, flirty and fun — which feels a bit unexpected to those who’ve never seen the play, too often viewed as singularly tragic, in the hands of David Ivers. He directs this production of “Romeo and Juliet,” and Lizabeth couldn’t wait to race off and find him after the show.
I’ve seen Lizabeth wait in long lines to meet various celebrities, but I’ve never seen her gush the way she did after seeing this production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
After the show she exclaimed “David Ivers is brilliant — that ending, oh!” Then she ran off to share her enthusiasm with Ivers himself, as well as Quinn Mattfeld, one of her instructors when she studied acting here last summer.
“I’m probably the only person who gets star-struck at the Shakespeare festival,” she told me. But clearly other teens and young adults were enamoured with the work — laughing or turning to one another in amazement as the play unfolded.
We ran into Magan Wiles, who performs the role of Juliet in this production, as we arrived at The Grind — where select cast members offer rousing cabaret-style entertainment after Thursday evening performances on the Adams Memorial Theatre stage.
I shared with her that I’d been seated in the balcony close to quite a few teenagers, and that I’d spent part of the show scanning the theater for audience member reactions.
She was delighted to learn that young audience members reacted so favorably to the work. “That’s really where I started from,” she told me — referring to her approach to performing the role of Juliet. It’s her first season performing at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
The youth in Iver’s Verona feel refreshingly young. “The boys acted like boys,” Lizabeth told me. This shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but there are other Shakespeare productions out there in which the young lovers and their kinsmen and companions feel stiff and stunted.
Here, they feel impetuous, full of energy. They don’t just fall in love, they get lovesick. They don’t just walk the streets of Verona, they jump. They don’t just talk, they shout and laugh and boisterously bemoan their fate. They feel alive — which makes all that death feel all the more tragic.
The production opens with ringing bells, then drums. With pounding feet and the scuffle of sword-fighting — masterfully done here as expected. But there’s plenty of unexpected along the way too. The final moments of “Romeo and Juliet” are gripping — the stuff that gasps, and glorious theater, are made of.
Despite the tragic storyline, Lizabeth and I agree that a single word best describes this production of “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s “playful.”
I so hope that Valley youth who are studying or performing the works of Shakespeare will come to Cedar City to see this production of “Romeo and Juliet.” The teens who turn their noses up at Shakespeare need to see it too.
For Shakespeare, and Ivers, understand the young among us better than most.
Coming up: Some serious comedy