Romeo and Juliet: St. Louis Shakespeare's labored delivery makes for real tragedy

Emily Jackoway and Leo Ramsey are the 
    star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet.
Emily Jackoway and Leo Ramsey are the star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet: St. Louis Shakespeare's labored delivery makes for real tragedy

Romeo and Juliet
Through April 6 at Hunter Theatre at De Smet Jesuit High School, 233 New Ballas Road, Creve Coeur.
Tickets are $15 to $25. Call 314-361-5664 or visit www.stlshakespeare.org.

One of the perennial challenges theater companies face when mounting Shakespeare's iconic Romeo and Juliet is this: How do you present a play that is read by nearly every high school student and performed hundreds of times a year in a way that is, if not original, at least memorable? Some companies try to update the dress, while others perform the entire play using inch-high plastic ninjas. But if you're Suki Peters directing St. Louis Shakespeare's somewhat lethargic production of the tale, you play it safe: dress the cast in period costumes and mind your iambic pentameter.

This isn't to say the entire production lacks panache. For the most part the cast handles the language well, mining the script early on for comedic moments that many performances leave untapped. What's more, while some productions employ older actors in the play's title roles, Peters has here cast age-appropriate high school students Leo Ramsey as Romeo and an astonishingly young-looking Emily Jackoway as Juliet. Both dispatch the parts ably, but their sheer youth adds a powerful dimension of naivety to the story — so much so, in fact, that the production raises a somewhat provocative question: Is this a tale of ill-fated love, or simply one of raging teenage hormones? Strong performances by Paul Devine in the role of Friar Lawrence and Charlie Barron in the role of Mercutio help to tease out the question.

These merits aside, however, the staging flags midway through the second act, as the cast begins to buckle under the strain of all those words. The play takes on a labored, mechanistic quality, as the players dutifully recite their lines in its march toward the inevitable death scene. When that scene finally does arrive, its tragedy of triple death is muted by the lengthy route we endured to get there. 

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