Review: ROMEO AND JULIET at Blind Cupid

The Blind Cupid Shakespeare Company’s First In-Person Production Is a Phenomenal Success

By: Aug. 23, 2022
Review: ROMEO AND JULIET at Blind Cupid

Often cited as the greatest love story ever told, Romeo and Juliet continues to stand the test of time and to this day remains one of William Shakespeare's most popular plays. But telling the story is one thing-telling it effectively, quite another. There is an unfortunate cynicism that many audience members (myself included) walk into productions of Romeo and Juliet with. We all know how the story is going to end. We're familiar with its general twists and turns, and getting us to believe that things could or should turn out differently is a real challenge. In all honesty, aside from Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 masterpiece, I've never seen a production of Romeo and Juliet that managed to leap the hurdles of foresight and predictability.

That is until I saw The Blind Cupid Shakespeare Company's interpretation of R&J. And, after learning that the entire run of the show sold out within two days, I feel tremendously lucky to have been able to do so.

Set in a timeless environment with only a white curtain and a singular bench as its set, the production was clearly focused more on character than pomp. While it can be fun to see highly stylized versions of R&J (looking at you, Baz Luhrmann), director Avery Banks' decision to focus more on the characters' inner lives and motivations was wonderfully refreshing. No one was villainized, and that made the play's emotional highs and lows much more impactful. The curtain also created some surprising opportunities for shadowplay, which were used to great effect and added to the sometimes romantic, sometimes eerie atmosphere of the play.

The balance between comedy and tragedy was played to perfection. The fact that Banks elected not to have the actors playing Mercutio, Benvolio, or Tybalt (who had a surprising number of funny moments) return in the second half of the play as different characters meant that their comedic presence in the first half was sorely missed. The transition from comedy to tragedy was sharp and deeply felt.

Much care clearly went into the casting of each character. Caden Brauch as Sampson and Emile Aslan Lacheny as Gregory set the bar incredibly high with their comedic timing in the opening scene. Both actors appeared throughout the play in different roles, with Brauch utilizing his experience as a stand-up comedian to excellent effect, and Lacheny demonstrating his skills as a character actor with apparent ease. They quickly won over the audience. Kevin Ramirez had a similar winning presence on stage, appearing as both a combative Montague fighter in the beginning, the delightfully innocent Peter in the middle, and the earnest Friar John at the end. He brought an intensity to each of his roles that was absolutely magnetic.

Brett Lowell and Feryal Kilisli as Lord and Lady Montague are proof of the old adage that "there are no small parts, only small actors." Both Lowell and Kilisli added unexpected and much-needed specificity and nuance to Romeo's parents. An unusual blocking choice in the opening scene left the impression that their relationship was just as fractured as that of Lord and Lady Capulet, though in a much subtler way. Lady Montague's despair at the news of her son's banishment was one of the shining moments of the notorious Mercutio/Tybalt death scene and actually justified her off-stage death at the end of the play (a detail that many productions either take for granted or omit). Lowell's Montague unraveled throughout the play in a way that was honest and well-structured, and his final scene, which is emotionally stacked, was played to perfection.

It's hard to imagine a better Prince Escalus than British actor Chris Dover, who stopped the opening fight in its tracks with his powerful voice and commanding presence. Dover held court each time he stepped on stage and made bold, interesting choices that majorly paid off. Prince Escalus can often come across as cold and detached from the rest of the plot, but Dover found a way to bring out his heart and his connections to other characters. He humanized Prince Escalus, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Turning to the second of two households, Patrick Troy-Brandt excelled as Lord Capulet. His transformation from the flamboyant life of the party to a devastated parent was heartbreaking. Capulet is often villainized, depicted as either careless or downright abusive. But in this production, when Juliet refused to marry Paris, Troy-Brandt's Capulet appeared more confused and hurt than angry, which added a layer of vulnerability to his character that I've never seen before. Fleur Voorn as Lady Capulet was equally fantastic. She resisted the common and simplistic temptation to play Lady Capulet as a "bad mom" and instead showed us a young woman who was, by no fault of her own, clearly ill-equipped to handle motherhood. The moments when she actively tried to bond with Juliet, only to second-guess herself or be rejected, were incredibly moving.

Canadian actor Spencer Jones was perfectly cast as Tybalt, the notorious "Prince of Cats." His performance was infused with sly smirks and haughty frowns, yet he also brought unexpected levity and heart to the part; in a unique directing choice, it was Tybalt, rather than the usual Capulet messenger, who appeared in Juliet's bedroom at the beginning of the play to rally the Capulet ladies to the party. His affection for his family, particularly his aunt, was much more apparent in this production than in any other I've seen before, and that (combined with Jones' natural charisma as an actor) made his death at the hands of Romeo all the more tragic.

It is always interesting to see what direction productions of R&J will take when casting the Nurse, and Blind Cupid did not disappoint with its decision to cast the young and feisty Molly Ehrenberg-Peters in a role that is usually reserved for much older actresses. Ehrenberg-Peters captivated on stage, turning the traditionally dim-witted and incompetent Nurse into a street-smart, strong-willed, and loyal friend to Juliet. Romeo has Mercutio and Benvolio, but Juliet is never seen with anyone her own age aside from Romeo. Using the Nurse to fulfill this normally absent role was an unexpected and exciting choice, and Ehrenberg-Peters suited the part so perfectly that I quickly forgot the Nurse could be cast any other way.

Timothy Wagner, who, according to his bio, is returning to Shakespeare after a 35-year hiatus, positively stole the stage as Friar Lawrence. You would never think that he'd taken a break from The Bard. The audience clung to his every word and gesture, from the moment he first quietly walked on stage, remarking on the smiling morning with a twinkle in his eye, to his final (and beautifully executed) monologue in the Capulet tomb. People often point to the Friar when looking for someone to blame, but Wagner played him with such heart that he was impossible to villainize. Similarly, Zak Ketcham, who made his Shakespearean debut as the noble County Paris, came across as surprisingly sympathetic. Ketcham did not shy away from Paris' Gaston-like qualities-the confidence, optimism, and enthusiasm that come from wealth and status-but he coupled them with genuine care and concern for Juliet, which tempered his character. By the end of the play, Paris seemed as much a victim of the times and circumstances as anyone else. Ketcham did a remarkable job adding dimension to a character that is so often used for comedic relief, and his final scene outside of the tomb, which can (and often does) come across as cringy, was actually one of my favorite moments in the play.

Mercutio and Benvolio, played by Australian actor Josh Bromfield Davis and British actor Joe Staton, respectively, were the best comedic pairing in a Shakespeare production that I've ever seen. I lost count of the number of physical comedy bits they incorporated into their scenes, and each one had the audience shaking with laughter. It's rare to see two actors play off each other so naturally and effortlessly. Davis and Staton had a comfortability around each other that not only served each joke but also spoke volumes about Mercutio and Benvolio's relationship without either of them having to say a word. It was clear that their friendship was old, deep, and, most importantly, nearing an end. As the play progressed, Staton's Benvolio went from a willing straight man to an exasperated bystander. One got the sense that he'd at long last outgrown Mercutio's antics. Davis' Mercutio, for his part, went from charismatic jokester to sullen instigator-"as soon moved to be moody, and as soon moody to be moved." He also clearly had a history with Tybalt that was hinted at just enough to be present without distracting from the main plot. I can't overstate how well both Davis and Staton delivered the comedy while doing justice to a dying friendship. For once, Mercutio's "A plague o' both houses!" felt earned.

And finally, the star-crossed lovers themselves. Japanese actress Anne Kato was one of the most vibrant, clever, and emotionally vulnerable Juliets I've ever seen. I think it's easy to become either impatient or annoyed with Juliet as the play progresses, but Kato made that impossible. She was an absolute joy to watch and root for, and she handled Juliet's daunting monologues (really, is there any line more intimidating than "O Romeo, Romeo"?) with dexterity and delight. Her Juliet was grounded, intelligent, and open-hearted all the way to the end, and the audience was right there alongside Romeo, falling madly in love with her.

Harrison Tipping was Romeo in every way, and I have never seen an actor bring so much variety to this particular part. Although the play takes place over the span of a mere five days, nothing about Tipping's performance felt rushed; he transitioned expertly from a brooding teenage boy to a lovestruck, well, Romeo to a volatile and ultimately desperate young man. Tipping's agility as an actor was astounding to watch. He fully embodied Romeo every second he was on stage with the skill and stamina of an actor well beyond his years. His chemistry with Kato was also exquisite. They balanced each other out, both as characters and as actors, and watching them lose each other at the end was truly devastating.

I also have to give a shout-out to Melanie Liebetrau, who choreographed the production's impressively realistic fight scenes; to John Coker, who composed some hauntingly beautiful melodies for the production (along with a party song that could have been pulled straight from the 80s); and to Alexandr Kireev, a Russian artist whose poster design excellently complemented the production's aesthetic.

Congratulations to The Blind Cupid Shakespeare Company for a very strong start! I'm very eager to see what it does next.

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