Romeo & Juliet: Experience the play as it was meant to be experienced

Few stories have been told and retold as many different times and in as many different forms as William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: from the West Side of New York City to your high school English class to… gnomes. For centuries, the star-crossed young lovers from feuding families have captured imaginations. Because the story is so well-known and so often remounted, the challenge for theaters lies in keeping it fresh. Romeo and Juliet has probably been done in any setting you can imagine and many more that you would never imagine. While the reimagings have their place, they almost make it so that doing the show simply as the bard hath wrote can be the most refreshing thing a theater can do: it allows the text and characters that originally secured its notoriety to shine. Such is the direction director Jeff Church has taken with Burbage Theatre Co’s season opener.

The energy quickly hits a high in the opening street brawl, where a thumb-biting incident between servants (Aidan Costa, David Weber, and Hector Maldonado) leads into an all-out fracas. A large ensemble clad in red or blue to designate their allegiance to Team Capulet or Team Montague respectively fills the space, duking it out with a variety of weapons, including some of a more improvised nature (big props for this and the other fight scenes to sword consultant/choreographer Teddy Lytle). Front row be warned: Burbage’s intimate space means that this action will be up close and personal. Prince Escalus (a commanding Sarah Taylor) arrives on the scene to break things up and admonish the feuding clans.

Cut to Romeo (Ben Pereira), mooning over his unrequited love, Rosaline, as his cousin, Benvolio (Omar Laguerre-Lewis), attempts to cheer him up. They catch wind of a party at Capulet’s place that Rosaline has been invited to, so Benvolio suggests they crash the party so Romeo can check out other girls–and since they play is not called “Romeo and Rosaline,” one can infer, if one somehow didn’t know, that this plan is a catastrophic success.


Pereira brings a great intensity to Romeo that serves well to feed into the sense of stakes and makes believable his capacity to fall deeply in love at first sight. This is best seen when Romeo later finds out he has been exiled in a heated conversation with Friar Lawrence (David Sackal) and when he finds out Juliet is dead (information which the audience knows to be false, but seals the lovers’ fates). Laguerre-Lewis’s Benvolio, on the other hand, brings a much-needed calming presence to the emotionally volatile Romeo and the wild Mercutio. As fan-favorite Mercutio, we have Victor Machado’s larger-than-life portrayal. He commands the space and the audience’s attention with his boisterous, jovial energy. His delivery of the Queen Mab monologue is truly captivating. As the first death of the play at the hands of the hot-headed Capulet Tybalt (Eddy Tavares), he gives a sense of the tragic scope of the family feud that he, despite not being a member of either family, has fallen to.

Meanwhile, in the house of Capulet, a potential betrothal between Paris (Jared Nobrega) and Juliet (Maggie Papa) is being negotiated. Capulet (Andy Stigler) is hesitant given that Juliet at age 13 is a tad young even by the standards of the time for marriage, but ends up relenting pending Juliet’s opinion upon meeting Paris at their party that evening. In the Capulets’ interactions, it seems that it’s really Francesca Hansen-Dibello’s Lady Capulet who’s pulling the strings; she gives off sort of a Machiavellian mob wife vibe, and even though she does not speak during this first interaction with Paris, a lot is said in her pointed throat-clearing and looks at Capulet. We then meet the young lover herself and the ever-rambling Nurse (Amie Lytle). Immediately, the audience sees the closeness between Juliet and the Nurse, as the two laugh over the raunchy anecdotes the Nurse tells–clearly, the Nurse’s sense of humor has infected Juliet.

As Juliet, Papa is fiery and youthful. This is especially clear in the “Gallop apace” monologue, in which she anticipates consummating her marriage with Romeo, at one point twirling in girlish excitement. One gets the sense that of the two lovers, Juliet, despite being younger, is the smarter and stronger of the two.

The party arrives, and with it, the anticipated meeting of the two lovers. Romeo is immediately taken with Juliet. Juliet meets his attention with a sort of fascination–which is a lot more than can be said for Paris, of whom we see Juliet give a “so-so” report to the Nurse. We later see this impression was probably deserved when we see Juliet and Paris briefly interact after their marriage has been decided on, where he comes across as a bit of a dandy. In the famous balcony scene, Juliet’s love for Romeo is more clearly cemented, as she laments their feuding families and asks Romeo to swear his love for her.

The next day, Romeo meets with his mentor, Friar Lawrence (David Sackal), who sees in the young lovers an opportunity to lay to rest the feud. He marries the young couple in a brief, mimed ceremony. Friar Lawrence proceeds to become the couple’s biggest cheerleader and schemer to reunite them in the wake of Romeo’s exile and the impending marriage of Juliet and Paris. In the end, when all his well-intended plans have led to an almost absurd degree of carnage, and he’s left to explain what has happened, his guilt as the party behind it all is palpable.

The set design is gorgeous, with an intricate backdrop of a southern Italian villa, adorned with Grecian columns and sheer white curtains. It’s particularly lovely under the soft lighting that signifies morning after Romeo and Juliet’s first and last night together (production design by Trevor Elliott, lighting design by Thomas Edwards). The set stays consistent, save for the adding of a railing for the balcony scene, which allows for smooth transitions between scenes that help keep the pacing on track. It also creates a sort of poetry in having the same platform serve as Juliet’s balcony, bed and tomb. Riley Nedder’s costume design goes for a more casual look that doesn’t quite match the vibe of the elegant set. The costumes make use of color to distinguish between the two families, while those separate from the feud and the young lovers wear neutral colors.

Burbage’s Romeo and Juliet is, for the most part, a rather conventional take on a classic, but this is not a bad thing as it allows the text and characters to take center stage. For students studying Shakespeare, this particular production presents an excellent opportunity to experience the play as it was meant to be experienced, especially the free to the public outdoor performances presented as a part of the Pawtucket Arts Festival.

Romeo and Juliet runs through Sept 24 at Burbage Theatre Co’s Wendy Overly Studio Theatre. The Saturday, Sept 2 and Friday, Sept 8 evening performances will be presented at Veterans’ Memorial Amphitheatre in downtown Pawtucket as a part of the Pawtucket Arts Festival and are free to the public. For tickets and more information, visit