Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2008

“For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act V, scene iii

I didn’t want to go and see this production of Romeo and Juliet at Main Street Stage because the company had made such a fuss beforehand about how if the community didn’t support them this time they might have to fold. “Like us or else!” was the message I got. And what if I didn’t like them? I would have to do so publicly and then I would be an easy scapegoat for whatever happened next. Ten years of uneven productions and poor public relations would suddenly all be my fault. No, I didn’t want to go.

So it is with great joy and relief that I announce that this is a really fine community theatre production of Romeo and Juliet. Director Melissa Quirk has not only assembled a lively cast eager and willing to learn and take chances with difficult material, but she has done more with the peculiar tunnel-like storefront space than any other director in my memory. The set worked – it was interesting and surprising – and the company also took pride in the hand they had had in constructing it.

The key to community theatre is community, and this is where Main Street Stage had been sorely lacking in the past. They often selected interesting and challenging material and many of the regular actors and directors who worked there had experience and talent. But they were not a community nor were they of this community. And they sometimes did and said things that showed a complete ignorance of the theatre community that already existed around them. I have a chance to observe the workings of a lot of theatre companies – amateur and professional – and I can tell you that the ones that make a direct connection with the community in which they work are the most financially and artistically successful.

Last summer Main Street Stage switched from its long-standing organizational plan headed by a single artistic director, to management by committee. And this committee came up with a brilliant idea. Open the door. Open the door and let people come in to the theatre during rehearsals and set builds as well as during performances. Let them participate in the process of making theatre as well as watching it. Listen to their ideas and utilize their talents. It wasn’t as easy as all that, merely having an open door doesn’t mean that anyone will walk in, but leaving the door locked ensures that no one can.

This past spring they opened the door and held some Shakespeare workshops to determine if they had sufficient interest and talent in the community to mount a Shakespearean production, and, if so, for which play would that talent be the best suited. In other words instead of trying to cram square pegs into round holes, they went out and looked at the pegs they had available and found a show with holes to match. Brilliant!

The result is this production of Romeo and Juliet which is chock full of the energy that comes from ownership of a show. This cast owns this show and you can tell that they are thrilled to be sharing it with their friends and neighbors. And by gum, their friends and neighbors are coming! There was a full house the night I attended (Main Street Stage seats about fifty) and there seemed to be good energy on the street with people coming to the theatre from The Hub Restaurant next door at 55 Main and other local eateries, and/or going on to them after the show. My friend and I walked up to peer through the windows of Gallery 51 during intermission. I could see a day when, at least on Friday and Saturdays nights when a show is up, the galleries and The Cup and Saucer might stay open and Main Street, North Adams, would develop a real downtown scene again. How cool would that be?!?

I am assuming everyone knows the basic plot of Romeo and Juliet – two teens from warring families fall in love – and how it ends – tragically. Quirk has cast actual teenagers in the lead roles – Juliet is played by 17-year-old Emily Graham and Romeo by 18-year-old Tyler Hebb – which works well to highlight Shakespeare’s emphasis on time. Events move remarkably quickly in Romeo and Juliet – it is less than a week between the couple’s first meeting and their deaths – and this places the story squarely in the context of the very young. Over and over you hear the adults implore the teens to be patient and slow down, but they can’t because they have no experience with time in years and decades, only in days and weeks. With the urgency of youth they must have what they want right now, and that is their downfall because right now a Montague (Romeo’s family) and a Capulet (Juliet’s family) cannot marry.

And the real Romeo and Juliet are younger still. I have no handle on exactly how old Romeo is, although he is clearly somewhere between 15 and 20, but the script makes it very clear that Juliet is not yet 14. And her suitor, County Paris (Jonathan Turbin), reminds her Lord Capulet (Edward Cating) that “Younger than she are happy mothers made” when he sues for her hand in marriage. I remember reading in A Distant Mirror, Barbara Tuchman’s excellent analysis of Europe in the 14th century, that one reason political and social interaction in the Middle Ages seem so immature to us is that the people in leadership roles were usually under 25. Of course they were making childish decisions – they were children! So are Romeo and Juliet.

Hebb does a really credible job with his role, while Graham does feel young. Used as we are to seeing and hearing adult actresses in the role I was at first put off by Graham’s obvious girlishness, until I realized how dumb that was. There were teenage girls in Elizabethan England and they probably sounded exactly like Graham, except they didn’t speak in verse. Graham pours her heart and soul into the part and brings all the youthful energy inherent in the role to the fore.

The leads each have their elder foil – Juliet has her Nurse (Janna Delgado) and Romeo has Friar Lawrence (Spencer Trova.) Shakespeare wrote both of these characters as truly “elderly” by Elizabethan standards, which means over 40, but the barely 30-something Delgado does an excellent job despite her youth. She brings a delightful girlish sense of fun to her lines and gives a consistently excellent performance.

Trova is exactly the right age to play Friar Lawrence, a part I understand he had to lobby hard for in spite of his credentials as founder of Main Street Stage, father of Alexia Trainor, who is a member of the theatre’s current administrative committee, father-in-law of Mike Trainor, who plays the Prince, and grandfather of Hebb. That’s right, in real life Friar Lawrence is Romeo’s grandfather and the Prince is his uncle. That’s one of those felicitous bits of trivia that puts the “community” in community theatre. Trova is an accomplished professional actor, and it obviously gives him great joy to perform with yet another generation (many of his children are actors) who has an interest in the stage.

Sean McHugh is a large stage presence, and Quirk has wisely cast him as the boisterous Mercutio, but his greatest contribution to this show is as Fight Captain (McHugh shares Fight Choreography credit with Kathleen O’Mara, Jeremy Kerr, and the ensemble). As was the case in the production of Macbeth that McHugh directed at MCLA this past spring, the fights are electrifying displays to testosterone-charged bravado, eliciting audible Ooos and Ahhhs from the audience.

Cating and Kelli Newby, two stalwarts of the local theatre scene, are moving as Lord and Lady Capulet. Its never been easy to be the parents of a 13-year-old girl, and Cating and Newby show you why it was a particular challenge in the era of arranged marriages.

Other stand-outs are Kerr as a really nasty Tybalt, Eric K. Auld as a gentle Benvolio, and Trainor as an aristocratic and authoritative Prince.

I once again got a kick out of seeing Cameron Lapine, at 11 the youngest actor in the cast, who did much with a non-speaking role and seemed to be having a great time up on the stage. Lapine is just one example of why community theatre is so important – here he gets to share the stage with a pro like Trova and learn from several actors and a director trained by Shakespeare & Company. If he should decide to become more involved with the theatre as he grows up, what a wonderful beginning he will have been provided with by Main Street Stage.

O’Mara and Mollie O. Remillard are responsible for the costumes, which are a wonderful combination of thrift and style. Whether you have a costume budget of $10 or $10,000 the most important thing is to bring a sense of cohesion to your overall look. Here it is easy to tell the Montagues (they wear shades of purple) from the Capulets (they wear shades of green). These colors are layered on top of basic black pants and white shirts, but the cut is suggestive of the period and the look is consistent.

I mentioned Quirk’s set before and I’ll give a fuller description of it here. The stage has been divided into three parts. Stage right is a two-story box that serves as the famous balcony, the Apothecary’s hovel, and the entrance to the Capulet tomb. The rear portion of the stage can be sectioned off by a black curtain which, masterfully lit by Jen Howard, can be rendered transparent or opaque. The wedding scene in Friar Lawrence’s cell and the final scenes in the tomb are performed behind this veil of gloom, and it works very well. In the center of the remainder of the stage is a raised disk, which serves as a fountain in a Veronese square, the base for Juliet’s bed, and an all-round useful thing to bound about on while sword-fighting.

Between this success and the good things I’ve been hearing about The Red Room – Main Street Stage’s weekly home-grown cabaret/open mic series which just ended a healthy summer run on Monday evenings and will reappear in October – it feels like the company should have the local support and the collective courage to keep on plugging for at least another twelve months. If you haven’t gotten to see this wonderful production, you’ve got one more weekend. My crazy summer reviewing schedule and then an unscheduled bout of the stomach flu kept me away for far longer than I would have liked. What’s your excuse? If you haven’t got one, call for tickets NOW (it was SOLD OUT last Friday!!)

Romeo and Juliet will run Friday, August 8th through Saturday, August 30th. All shows are at 8PM on Friday and Saturday nights at Main Street Stage located at 57 Main Street in North Adams, MA. Thursday, August 14th will be a community "pay what you can" night. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students with valid id. The show runs three hours and a quarter with one intermission, and it is the length and the number of dead bodies on stage at the final curtain that make me recommend that you leave children under 10 at home and only bring 10-13 year olds if they are theatre buffs and/or Shakespeare aficionados.

For reservations please call the Main Street Stage Box Office at 413-663-3240

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2008

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