Contrasted by a traditional Italian funeral processional, the contemporary scenery and the pace of the opening fight scene of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ presentation of “Romeo and Juliet” creates curiosity from the very beginning. But when Reynaldo Piniella eases on the stage as Romeo, he snatches the attention of the audience and never lets them go.
His Romeo has some serious swag – and beyond the skinny jeans, leather jacket and dark glasses of his costume. Even in chill mode, his energy and presence starting from when he introduces himself to the audience set the tone for director Elena Araoz’s production that speaks to all ages – even the millennial.
Shakespeare purists may be put off by the modernization of the play, which runs through June 24 at Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park. But the true gift of history’s greatest playwright is his timelessness. Shakespeare Festival St. Louis repackages “Romeo and Juliet” so that his words hit home – and creates a production that manages to engage even those digital natives who live in a constant state of distraction.
Just about everyone – including those who haven’t seen the production – is familiar with the play’s premise. Two teens from enemy families fall in love. A series of unfortunate circumstances deny them their happily-ever-after, but serves as a wake-up call for the warring houses of Capulet and Montague.
Some might compare this production to Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Even if meant as a compliment, it sells Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ production short. Araoz brings diversity to the stage from every angle. David Heron and Patrice Foster look as if they could be Piniella’s biological parents as Lord and Lady Montague. Meanwhile African-American actress Cherie Corrine Rice’s Lady Capulet couldn’t look more different than her stage daughter Juliet, played by the blonde-haired Sigrid Wise.
The same goes for Margery and Peter Spack’s scenic design that blends bold colors of the nightlife district in a thriving metropolis with the towering architecture of a historic estate, and Dottie Marshall Englis works the same hybrid magic with her costumes. This “Romeo and Juliet” also has a soundtrack of original music by the Dust Ensemble that hints at hip-hop, neo soul and rock in addition to Medieval orchestrations over the course of the show.
Actors take varying approaches that are blended with respect to style to reflect both classical and contemporary approaches to Shakespeare.
Terrell Wheeler takes goes urban with his Mercutio, while Jane Paradise’s Nurse, Michael James Reed’s Lord Capulet and Gary Glasgow’s Friar Laurence (a brilliantly comic turn) echo the classical theater experience. Antonio Rodriguez’s Benvolio lies somewhere in the middle. The chemistry is authentic even as they present their respective characters from the style that best suits them.
Piniella’s Romeo takes the biggest risk – and yields the greatest reward. As he speaks, he gives Romeo an intentional drawl that gives his words the opportunity to marinate with the audience. He slows Romeo down, and one can’t help but soak him in.
Young people of color will find themselves reflected on stage – and youth from all backgrounds who see “Romeo and Juliet” will connect with production as the play. At the 7:15 p.m. Green Show on Thursday through Sunday nights, the festival’s youth ensemble, Shakespeare Squadron, performs a brilliantly conceived 25-minute version of the play under Gad Guterman’s direction, with the incredibly talented teens rearranging sets while delivering Shakespeare’s ornate and tricky English.
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis lives up to its promise to pay the gift of Shakespeare forward to a new generation – by creating a production that is an illustration of the world we now live in.
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ presentation of “Romeo and Juliet” continues through Sunday, June 24 at Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen. The green show begins at 6:30 p.m. and the mainstage begins at 8 p.m. For more information, visit https://www.sfstl.com or call (314) 531-9800.