If you’re accustomed to thinking of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” as a bittersweet story of young romance gone awry, you’ll find plenty that’s new in the Southwest Shakespeare Company production of “Romeo and Juliet” being performed through Jan. 21 at the Mesa Arts Center.
The work is directed by Richard Corley of Chicago, who set “Romeo and Juliet” during the Middle Ages — before the time it was written by Shakespeare. It’s an intriguing twist for those familiar with productions morphed into modern day settings.
Before a single actor takes the stage, you’re gripped by the jarring nature of the set — the work of scenic artist Laura Johnson. Juliet’s bedroom balcony is askew. Tombs appear cast asunder. And the single stained glass window dotted with dark red circles signals you’re peering into a desecrated church.
“Churches have so many associations with things that happen in life,” says Corley. Marriage. Death. “I wanted the set to be evocative.” Corley shared his vision for the production during a post-show talkback with cast and creative team members on opening night — noting his fascination with the play’s too often overlooked apothecary scene.
It sparked Corley’s exploration of “the sense of disease and starvation” that’s an undercurrent in the play — something he punctuates with Friar John’s (Spencer Dooley) explanation that travel routes blocked off for fear of the plague prevented him from delivering the note that could have saved Romeo’s life.
It’s tempting to assume that there’s little thrill in seeing a work already mounted many times over. But this “Romeo and Juliet” will heighten your appreciation for parts of the story you might have overlooked. Many in the audience remarked that the production gave them a greater understanding and appreciation for the language of this play.
The journeys of Romeo and Juliet from childlike wonder to grown-up woe are well portrayed in this production, but I was most intrigued by their enablers — Nurse to Juliet (Janae Thomas) and Friar Laurence. Andrés Alcalá (Friar Laurence during evening performances) delivers an especially compelling performance.
The cast and creative team include both fresh faces and Valley favorites. Both Mike Roush (Romeo) and Ali Rose Dachis (Juliet) are graduates of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater B.F.A. Actor Training Program.
Alcalá was recently seen in Childsplay’s “The Sun Serpent” and is directing their upcoming production of “With Two Wings.” David Barker, the Valley’s best known fight choreographer, returns for his 25th Southwest Shakespeare Company production.
Southwest Shakespeare Company will present two additional works to round out their 2011/12 season — a Yasmina Reza play titled “Art” (March 1-17) and Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (April 19-May 5). Jared Saken serves as artistic director, and Utah Shakespearean scholar Michael Flachmann will lead a “Much Ado About Nothing” seminar on April 21.
Folks eager to support the Southwest Shakespeare Company’s education programs can attend a Feb. 25 fundraiser dubbed “Speakeasy Night” at the Wrigley Mansion — which features Dennis Rowland and his Jazz Trio, emcee Bob Sorenson and plenty of live/silent auction items.
Those needing a summer Shakespeare fix can head to Cedar City for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. And those of you eager to return to the Middle Ages can simply throw out your televisions, laptops and cell phones.
Note: Click here for show and ticket information (no one under the age of six will be permitted for this production). For a taste of scholarly discourse about Shakespeare and the Middle Ages, click here to read a review article written by Dermot Cavanagh for the August 2011 issue of the “Journal of the Northern Renaissance.”
Coming up: Writing tips and resources, More Shakespeare on Valley stages