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Love Among the Ruins

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has a Good Time With a Classic Tragedy

Ill Fate: Patrick Kilpatrick and Valerie Dowdle get their stars crossed.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 6/4/2003

Romeo and Juliet

William Shakespeare

You know the story. Star-crossed lovers from feuding families take their own lives rather than be torn asunder. Sounds awfully depressing, doesn't it? But as anyone who has read or seen Romeo and Juliet can attest, it's not really a bummer until the end. The first half is bawdy, upbeat, and playful. So one of the foremost challenges for any theater troupe attempting Shakespeare's classic tale is to reconcile the tragedy and the comedy. At its inaugural performance at the Patapsco Female Institute ruins in Ellicott City, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company nails the comedy, offering a vivacious and thoroughly charming beginning. And while the tragedy doesn't fare as well, by the time those silly kids Romeo and Juliet bid adieu, the audience genuinely feels the loss.

If one had to sum up the first half in a word, it would be "energy." It fairly crackles with it, from the kinetic direction to the cast's unwavering zeal. Romeo doesn't walk, he bounds. And Juliet, far from the proper prissy princess she is so often portrayed as, comes across as a willful goofball. Valerie Dowdle's portrayal of Juliet makes her worthy of all the praise Romeo heaps upon her. She practically effervesces, making Juliet both incredibly likable and fatally foolish--the kind of girl who is desperate to be the heroine of her own love story, tragic or no. Patrick Kilpatrick's Romeo isn't quite as strong, and, while he infuses the lover with an effective petulance, other players often overshadow him. Dan O'Brien's Mercutio and Adam Mondschein's Benvolio in particular are such strong and engaging presences that you almost forget Romeo is there. The scenes between the three men are some of the show's most entertaining, and their playful roughhousing is infectious. Mondschein, especially, wrings every drop of humor out of his scenes, and when the play turns tragic he shifts seamlessly.

Director Ian Gallanar keeps the energy flowing by throwing his actors around the multilevel stage and making sure that even the smallest parts have something entertaining to do; for example, Charles Drexler's turn as Peter the servant steals more than a few scenes. Gallanar also smooths the transition from the jovial first half to the ill-fated second by ending the first not with Romeo and Juliet's wedding but with Tybalt's and Mercutio's deaths.

There were a few stumbles early on. The madrigals that performed at the ball where Romeo and Juliet meet slow down the production; Romeo and Juliet spend most of their songs standing with their backs to the audience on opposite sides of the stage, watching the singers. The sword-fighting scenes are pathetically timid. The actors seem to be flinching with each clash of the swords, fencing in unintentional slo-mo. And a scene between Benvolio and Romeo's parents, Montague (Timothy Fowler) and Lady Montague (Karen Morgan), feels staid. The actors stand stock-still in a line, while Fowler and Morgan deliver their lines like they're reading a teleprompter.

Romeo and Juliet thought their parents were dreadful bores, and I have to agree. Only Lesley Malin as Lady Capulet fares well. Mike Keating's Capulet is a millstone around the neck of the play's second half, his awkward performance destroying much of the tension. Fortunately, Dowdle and B.J. Gailey as Friar Laurence are engaging enough for everyone. Dowdle's monologue, before Juliet takes the elixir to make her appear dead, is one of the play's highlights--sad, humorous, and altogether touching. And Gailey brings out the many facets of the conflicted Friar, a man who tries to do the right thing but ultimately paves the way for the lovers' deaths.

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has the lovely ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute as its background, and its multitiered stage adds depth to the production. But the stage needs to be higher. It's difficult to see all the action from the folding chairs they've placed on the lawn, and often the head of the person in front of you blocks some pivotal scene, especially in the second half when Romeo and Juliet spend much of their time sobbing on the ground. But this first attempt at Shakespeare in the Ruins is a promising start. If this show serves as any indication, the Bard will be well-pleased with his new home.

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