Theater review: Romeo And Juliet by Mountain Art Theatre

Henry Williamson III and Josephine Thomas appear as Romeo and Juliet.
Henry Williamson III and Josephine Thomas appear as Romeo and Juliet. Photo courtesy of Mountain Art Theatre

The works of Shakespeare have endured, in part, because the themes contained within are malleable. They can fit into a multitude of eras, cultures and conventions, while still feeling relevant to the audience. In spite of specific times and settings within the scripts themselves, I’ve seen the Bard’s works set in post-apocalyptic locales, modern corporate settings, far-flung science-fiction fantasy worlds, the wild West, World War II and just about anything in between.

For its latest outing, Mountain Art Theatre brings Romeo and Juliet to the new Fangmeyer stage at Haywood Arts Regional Theatre as part of the latter’s studio season. Mountain Art Theatre has set the classic and timeless tale of star-crossed lovers in the post-Civil War era. The setting is localized by the identification in the playbill of Cold Mountain as a nearby marker.

At the same time, references to Verona and other places from the original script are still in the text, heightened speech rather than localized dialects are used, and titles like “Prince” and “Friar” remain. Still, the look and feel of the show is decidedly mid-1800s. There are trace elements of something akin to the conflict between the Hatfields and McCoys with the enmity that forces Juliet Capulet apart from Romeo Montague. There are also plenty of unspoken but visual elements — mostly through costuming —  from the Civil War.

Dwight Chiles, a strong performer in his own right, directs from a concept that he has had in mind for many years. His ongoing collaborations with Henry Williamson III and Josephine Thomas (among others) have led to this vision coming to life. In recent years, this group, with heady notions of strong literary works of theater, has produced several pieces, including a work by Chekhov.

Williamson is Romeo and Thomas is Juliet, which is easy to accept in spite of both being a good number of years older than the teenage protagonists they play. They have easy chemistry, especially since the duo are a real life couple. This could inspire early 1990s comparisons to Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, which would be completely understandable. Williamson and Thomas are quickly becoming a power couple of smart, classic theater productions. Williamson’s Romeo is abundant with goofy swagger and Thomas’s Juliet has exuberant charm and sweetness.

A handful of actors help to fill out the rest of the production, many taking on multiple roles throughout. Allen T. Law gets a major workout, crossing genders and personalities, playing the comedy relief Nurse, the hot headed Tybalt and others. Samantha LeBrocq does turns as the Prince and the Friar effectively, bending gender expectations in both. Julie Kinter lends a solid anchor and a hint of the regal as Lady Capulet.

The breakout role in the show is Mercutio, played by David Anthony Yeates. A visceral performer, Yeates embodies Mercutio with a tightly coiled temper that flares frequently, fueled in part by moonshine, but also by some deep inner conflict that Yeates effectively intones without being obvious or over the top. It is a brash but deftly handled performance, keeping the darkness of the character’s soul bubbling just under the surface.

In an extra and unexpected layer, Chiles and company have included musical transitions to the show, adding regional and period-specific songs within the tapestry of the play itself. With their harmonies, Chiles and Christine Caldemeyer lend a subtle flavor to this effective production.

WHAT: Romeo And Juliet by Mountain Art Theatre
WHERE: Haywood Arts Regional Theatre, Waynesville, NC www.harttheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Jan. 22, with performances Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. $10

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