Review: Lord Denney’s Players Charming and Vibrant Romeo and Juliet
Lord Denney’s Players have the most specific and intriguing mandate in Columbus theatre, dedicating themselves to deep-dive explorations of Shakespeare’s evolutions and variations. They deliver on the promise of that mission with an explosive version of the rarely performed 1597 First Quarto version of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Cat McAlpine (with assistant director Joseph Glandorf who also serves as dramaturge).
Hints of what’s in store start with restoring the publisher’s original full title, An Excellent Conceited Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, before “conceited” became the “lamentable” we’re all accustomed to and when Juliet’s (Jordan Booker) name loomed as large as Romeo’s (Lior Livshits).
The First Quarto version is shorter than the Romeo and Juliet we all know and still feels like a rough draft. McAlpine’s production finds magic in embracing these rough edges and contradictions. She and her cast lean into and attack the material with a punk rock energy, a sense of juvenile snottiness in the service of cracking open old ideas. The night I saw clocked in at just over two hours with one intermission and crackled with a breathless intensity.
Booker and Livshits have a subtle chemistry and ease with one another that highlights their lack of ease with the world, both the world of their stratified, shackled-to-the-past families, and the world of rotting Verona. They, individually and together, hint at what could have been another path, and make the crushing inevitability of the ending hurt even for those of us who’ve seen many productions. They boil the symbolism down to two people who try their hardest and can’t get there.
McAlpine’s production traffics in a physicality and riotous sense of play. She understands that in our darkest times, part of the defense is amusing each other, sometimes in reckless and horrifying ways. Her cast goes all in with her on this, against a sparse backdrop but with spectacular, rough-edged and witty costumes by Karen Sylvester and Gina Langen. That sense of bodies bouncing off the restrictions of society and each other gets extra fuel from Scott Russell’s sharp fight choreography and Kimberly Wilczak’s dance choreography.
The most fun is always had by Romeo and Juliet’s cousins, partners and friends, and this production does not disappoint. John Jude plays his preening Tybalt as a shadow of Romeo, similarly dissatisfied with the prospects in front of him, but with nothing positive to direct the energy toward it boils over as rage and ego. Ellie Rogers’ hilarious Mercutio is one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen of that character, balancing the easy charm and wit with a mercurial, quixotic darkness. Hannah Nelson’s riveting Peter, Joey Hoffmann’s Benvolio, and Abbi Voda’s Balthasar add bursts of color whenever they grace the stage.
One of the key strengths of this Romeo and Juliet is its commitment to its choices. Antony Shuttleworth’s Paris, much older than the rest of the cast, highlights a sadness and loneliness in what’s often an exaggerated villain, a cartoon rival. Natalie Dalea’s Prince is as imperious and self-righteous as you’d expect but with hints of terror that the world is slipping away from her. Lord Denney’s Players give us a Romeo and Juliet that matches what we know in broad strokes but shines new light through the cracks in ways we don’t expect. It’s a rollicking, ferocious, fun piece of theatre that’s essential viewing for Shakespeare nerds but with enough excitement for everyone else.
Romeo and Juliet runs April 11-13 at the Van Fleet Theatre of the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave. Performances begin at 7:30 p.m. nightly. For tickets and more information, visit brownpapertickets.com/event/4098225.