Romeo and Juliet at First Folio Theatre | Theater review

An outstanding cast renders the familiar tale anew in First Folio’s terrific outdoor production.
Photograph: David Rice Kelsey Brennan, left, with Annabel Armour and Patrice Egleston in Romeo and Juliet at First Folio Theatre

First Folio’s summer Shakespeare under the stars invites the audience to bring a bottle of wine and some bug spray and take in the kind of Romeo and Juliet production Bard buffs should salivate over: tragic, yes, but bitingly funny and dynamically staged. Director and fight choreographer Sandys and an epically terrific cast bring a fresh exuberance to scenes so well-known they can border on rote.

Everything here is done with wit and an eye toward unexpected characterization. It’s difficult to imagine a more ecstatic, awkward or charming balcony scene than what Allan and a masterful Brennan create. Their chemistry eschews sighs and doe-eyed stares for the kind of bumbling frenzy these star-crossed, slightly unstable teenagers deserve. He’s no Casanova, she’s no delicate prize—it’s fantastic to watch. They’re supported by a knockout cast, particularly Gray’s devilish, drug-addled Mercutio and Dreier, who—perhaps a historic first—nearly steals the show as Friar John.

Sandys’s central conceit—setting the action in 1818 and forcing a kind of macabre, Shelleyesque foreboding featuring copious thunder claps—is a stumbling block. While it makes for a great set and costumes, Brennan is absolutely robbed when her tortured deliberation over whether or not to swallow the Friar’s potion is superseded by smoke machines and a bat-winged imp. Her work is so captivating, so dialed in, that any technical magic that pulls a single eyeball from her should be considered a crime.

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