Sweet Tea Shakespeare brings us a new production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, presented in the Leggett Theater at William Peace University’s Kenan Hall. The show is a pared-down version that consists of only 10 players and runs a mere two-and-a-quarter hours. Sweet Tea adds a few bonus features as well: for those fortunate enough to arrive early, there is a pre-show and the intermission is spiced with a musical interlude.

Sweet Tea has used surgical skill in reducing Romeo and Juliet‘s runtime down near the “two hours traffic” mentioned in the show’s prologue. This is a feat of theatrical magic that is matched, if not exceeded, by the production’s limited number of performers, which, given Romeo and Juliet‘s expansive character list, is a small miracle. Sweet Tea has managed to whittle a massive list of 26 separate characters (including three musicians, numerous servants, and the heads of two major families) down to 19. Then, using some brilliant arranging, all 19 characters appear on the stage with a cast of only 10 actors. In modern presentations of Shakespeare, double casting is a normal practice, but to do it to this extent is more unique.

The exception to the double casting is Rebecca Jones, with Benvolio as her sole character assignment. As such, Benvolio appeared on stage more often than one would think reading the script, often as an interested observer of what was happening. Even Ben Apple and Chloe Oliver, Romeo and Juliet, respectively, played multiple roles, each portraying a brawling servant for the opposing Montague and Capulet families.

Claire F. Martin has directed Romeo and Juliet using an imaginative staging that makes use of the pit in front of the stage as a locale within the town of Verona, where Shakespeare has placed his little Italian drama. But I was brought to full attention at one point when Martin seemingly had two scenes being played out simultaneously, one involving Romeo in the pit, while Juliet was in another scene taking place above and behind him on the stage. In a very enlightened scenario, Martin has removed Romeo from the scene below and insinuates him into the scene above, allowing him to comment on what is taking place while he is supposedly some distance away. This was brand new to me; I have not seen so creative an arrangement in many a long year. It caused me to sit bolt-upright and spend many a long moment scribbling madly in my notebook. This was, to my mind, a stroke of genius and brought to me a completely new way of looking at a scene. Bravo and accolades to Martin for creating so imaginative a scene.

This production has other aspects worthy of note as well: Original music has been written for the show, which is incorporated into the intermission interval. Further, once the supposedly deceased Juliet is interred in her crypt, she is laid out on stage under a black shroud, which was also a new situation for me; I was greatly intrigued. A good deal of thought has gone into this production, making it a piece well worth your attention.

One particular aspect of this production that I wish you to consider is the use of language. Shakespeare often suffers from an inability of modern casts to handle the Bard’s oft-flowery language; not so in this production. To a person, this cast handled the language adroitly and naturally. I am not often impressed by the way a cast handles the Bard’s iambic pentameter, but this cast was so expert in its usage that it bears comment. That in itself is a rarity, and one to be applauded.

I also wish to commend this cast on its abilities with swordplay. The fight scenes in this show were noteworthy; they were swift and well-crafted. When a blade was supposed to inflict a wound, it was evident, both in the attack, and in the reaction necessary. These were intelligent and tightly controlled episodes, most particularly the exchange between Romeo and Paris (a spot-on Nat Sherwood). I wish to note that these scenes are both necessary and difficult, and in this production they were carefully choreographed and well executed. We watched these struggles intently, and they were quite believable. I stand amazed.

Shakespeare places upon us, in this play particularly, the necessity of suspending our disbelief. We are, on the one hand, supposed to accept that this is a story of two, essentially, children – at best a pair of teens. On the other hand, we believe that the two are capable of executing the almost herculean complications that the Bard foists upon them. I can think of very few situations more complex than simulating death or executing a tryst when both friend and foe seek to locate you. So, when it comes to Romeo and Juliet, we arrive ready to accept a certain amount of creative license. It is therefore necessary on the part of any cast not to add to the difficulty of keeping the audience believing what is taking place on stage. I can state categorically that I was with this cast every step of the way. The situation we must accept is a treacherous one, but one that these ten players crafted artfully. There are times in Romeo and Juliet that it is difficult to keep from a certain amount of “Oh, come on!” But in watching this production, I confess I was transfixed. Despite the very intricate – and often stupefying – aspects of the story of these star-crossed lovers, I must admit to being swept up in their plight. And that is a treat which I have not felt in many a production of this particular play. I therefore commend this production to you wholeheartedly. It is expertly presented, and given more creative juices in its production than is usually the case. Bravo, Sweet Tea. And many more. Please.

Romeo and Juliet continues through Saturday, November 6. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.