Romeo and Juliet.jpg
OSF photo by Jenny Graham

Romeo (William Thomas Hodgson) and Juliet (Emily Ota) fall in love at first sight.

OSF’s 2018 production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ shines

“Romeo and Juliet” is the timeless story of star-crossed lovers and old disputes that divide the state. The 2018 production opened the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor season last week, a beloved tale staged in the glory of Verona’s Italian Renaissance.

“Romeo and Juliet” is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays, about young love and a union forbidden by families locked in hatred for each other. The source of their dispute is lost to time, but the families carry forth the quarrel, Capulet against Montague, Montague against Capulet.

As the play opens to the audience, a woman bows a cello gripped surely between her knees. White-cowled figures assemble on stage, and Gregorian chants sound to the skies. The opening prologue tells the unhappy chronicle of what is to come, beautifully signed by the chorus, hands forming ideas and echoing the spoken words. Separated by their clans, Romeo and Juliet relate their account of love and woe.

The leads are played by William Thomas Hodgson and Emily Ota, who shape the arc of the narrative from spirited fancy to adult despair. Their emotions play across their faces, love bringing abandon to movement. Ota calls out Juliet’s romantic, plaintive platitudes, and Hodgson expresses Romeo’s yearning below the balcony. Their words are so familiar to us that we say them as well, silently in the dark of the theater.

Sara Bruner and Derek Garza, are hot blooded in their roles as Mercutio and Tybalt, sparking the misfortune that starts to unfold. Their alliance to family, and especially Mercutio’s crude wit, deny any possibility of love and beauty, willing the tragedies to begin. Bruner’s supple body and aggressive masculinity are comic at first, but before long descend into violence.

Monique Holt makes her OSF acting debut in “Romeo and Juliet,” in the role of the beautiful and silent Lady Montague. Holt is well paired with veteran actor Richard Elmore as Montague. One wishes there were more lines for her role as it is delightful to watch the signed communications, gestures adding meaning and affect to the scenes.

Friar Laurence, played by Michael J. Hume, and Robin Goodrin Nordli as Nurse are splendid and carry many of the scenes. Nordli’s voice and range of expression extend the impact of her witty wordplay and comical role, the Nurse self-indulgent but honest and true. These characters are pivotal and hold individual loyalty and love for Romeo and Juliet above family doctrine. The Friar, Hume wearing sandals and rough tunic, sees the greater possibility that love can heal a kingdom. Hume’s shuffling, loving accommodation to an ever more complicated situation is the embodiment of the good friar trying too hard to make the world right.

The Friar and Nurse understand the importance of healing old wounds and living new lives unencumbered by old hatreds. They understand consequence and the inevitability of action as they try to bring together the families. Their foolish intervention ultimately brings about the final and most absolute loss to Capulet and Montague. Taking responsibility for their deeds, Hume and Nordli are fully committed to their roles, despair and regret spilling across the stage.

“Romeo and Juliet” is brilliantly costumed and handsomely staged. Rich textures, gold-shot weaves and extravagant patterns adorn the men, while modest, fluid cloths fitted to breast and waist drape to women’s forms. Men are outwardly focused, and women are subdued and modest in behavior and demeanor, at the mercy of their men, no will of their own. Juliet alone is defiant yet vulnerable, Ota often clothed in a simple cotton slip that marks her goodness.

Shakespeare makes much of time passing: daylight and nighttime, the sun and moon and stars in the sky. Director Damaso Rodriguez similarly uses the passage of day to dusk to night to mark the course of the production. As the play progresses, as romance leads to death, the lighting becomes darker and more focused, music and mood more somber. Voices in the blue-black crypt echo with despair. Rodriguez uses these techniques to focus audience attention on the individual and on the painful effects of exclusion, exile and rejection.

“Romeo and Juliet” has always presented the inexplicable and unknowable enmity between people, between groups, between cultures. From its first production, each iteration of this play, each adaptation reinforces the absurdity of hatred and violence against someone who is different, who is other. This 2018 OSF staging is a good reminder for today’s times, challenging the viewer to cultivate caring and bridge difference with respect and optimism.

“Romeo and Juliet” runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission. The play continues in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre through Oct. 12, with a sign-interpreted performance July 6. For more information and to buy tickets, see www.osfashland.org.

Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella can be reached at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

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