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Juliet shines sun-bright in American Players’ earthy view of Shakespeare tragedy

Submitted by on Jul 2, 2014 – 2:41 pm

It's love at first sight for Juliet (Melisa Pereyra) and her Romeo (Christopher Sheard). (Carissa Dixon)Review: “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare, at American Players Theatre through Oct. 4. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

SPRING GREEN, Wis. – Care as we may for the oft love-struck young swain in Shakespeare’s great tragedy “Romeo and Juliet,” it is Juliet whose desperate predicament holds our hearts in thrall. A successful staging requires, above all else, an irresistible Juliet, radiant indeed as the eastern sun, and American Players Theatre’s affecting summer run boasts just such a blazing star in Melisa Pereyra. 

Love's light is in the east for Romeo (Christopher Sheard) and Juliet (Melisa Pereyra) is the sun. (Carissa Dixon)Her exuberant, vulnerable, ultimately devastated Juliet springs not only from a convincing engagement with each moment and emotional circumstance of Juliet’s swift arc, but also from an impeccable mastery of language. The word. Pereyra’s beguiling performance is rooted in articulate speech.

In Juliet’s most ardent or distraught states of mind – in the transport of her balcony tryst with Romeo and in the crushing exchange with a father who demands that his secretly wedded daughter marry another man – Pereyra manages to subsume great emotion within clear delivery of the text. That is when Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry leaps from the stage.

No less expressively focused, if not quite so rhetorically assured, is Christopher Sheard’s Romeo. The first dramatic trick any Romeo must pull off is to convince us – as he must Friar Laurence – that this new infatuation is more than just another flight of fancy, a momentary successor to yesterday’s Rosaline. We must be able to see Juliet through Romeo’s eyes and hear her echoed in his words as an authentic epiphany, an instant coming of age. Sheard makes love-at-first-sight a credible connection with this likewise gob-smacked Juliet.

Juliet (Melisa Pereyra, foreground) and her Nurse (Colleen Madden) share a happy chat on the subject of marriage. (Carissa Dixon)The lovers are surrounded by a solid cast of APT veterans directed with equal attention to wit, passion and peril by James DeVita.

Especially appealing is Colleen Madden’s sly, earthy portrayal of Juliet’s faithful Nurse as a woman who knows how the world wags and who loves with her whole being this girl she has cared for from infancy. Madden is another actor who never blurs a syllable, and yet one of her most memorable moments is beyond speech – when Juliet is discovered in her bedroom apparently dead. While others exclaim their dismay and question aloud what they behold, the Nurse has no lines; but we’re drawn to Madden’s devoted Nurse upstage, gasping her despair. It is a wondrous, heart-wrenching coup-de-theatre on the part of director DeVita and Madden.

Tybalt (Eric Parks, left) and Mercutio lay on in the public square. (Carissa Dixon)DeVita and actor Eric Parks also offer a somewhat less virulent Tybalt than one usually sees. Parks – tall, lean, his head shaved almost bald – cuts a wiry, fit, combat-worthy figure, and in his confrontation with Capulet (James Ridge) at the masked ball he indeed seems headstrong. But later, in his public encounters with Romeo’s likewise belligerent pal Mercutio (played with a wry and infectious bravura by Nate Burger), this Tybalt shows a willingness to back off.

Tybalt’s little hesitation only accentuates Mercutio’s anger when, in the public square, Romeo surprisingly declares his affection for Tybalt. The ensuing sword fight between Mercutio and Tybalt is harrowing as Romeo constantly tries to come between them for reasons only he can know. When finally his interference allows Tybalt’s rapier to strike Mercutio, we rapt observers find ourselves asking with the dying man: Why in the world did you have to get in the way?

Other bright spots bear noting. Matt Schwader actually makes an appealing, sensitive character of Paris, the rich and well-connected gentleman whom Capulet has landed as Juliet’s husband. Typically, Paris comes off as no better than bland, but Schwader gives him depth and presence. As Romeo’s pal Benvolio — sort of the third musketeer with Mercutio — Jeb Burris offers a hearty, stand-up guy.

Friar Laurence (John Pribyl) scolds Romeo (Christopher Sheard) for wallowing in his misery. (Carissa Dixon)And John Pribyl is the soul of human warmth and understanding as Friar Laurence, who sees in Romeo’s latest fancy a possible end to the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets. Pribyl strikes a happy mean between the friar’s comic indulgence and his genuine commitment to the young couple he has privately married.

It’s always fascinating to see how, with a few deft touches, APT’s adaptable outdoor venue — called for good reason the Up-the-Hill Theatre — can be radically altered, and Takeshi Kata has done just that with little more than a center-stage platform and a balcony rail. And Rachel Anne Healy’s gorgeous period costumes – the bird-like ball masks are fabulous – take us back to that timeless long-ago, that sublime and melancholy once upon a time in old Verona.

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