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Nashville Shakespeare Festival sets Romeo & Juliet in late-19th century Chicago, with fabulous results

The Bard's Kind of Town

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It's easy to be skeptical about newfangled adaptations of Shakespeare. When presenting a play that's been staged thousands of times, it's only natural to want to find a fresh angle, but the potential risks can often outweigh the rewards.

So I was both intrigued and a tad skeptical when I learned that Nashville Shakespeare Festival's 24th Shakespeare in the Park production, Romeo & Juliet, would be set in 1894 Chicago. But now I'm a believer: David Wilkerson delivers a strong debut as a professional director, overseeing a lively and well-spoken cast and marshaling diverse design elements that conjure the Windy City around the time of the Columbian Exposition, a World's Fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World.

Here, the Montagues and Capulets are political rivals, as patersfamilias square off in an aldermanic race, the quintessential Chicago event for bombast and one-upmanship. With Jonathan Hammel's evocative stonework-and-columns set, June Kingsbury's elaborate costumes and Anne Willingham's impressive lighting transitions, this Romeo & Juliet sits comfortably in its new surroundings. Meanwhile, a small band, under the direction of Paul Carrol Binkley, plunks out some jaunty campaign tunes and incidental themes.

There are occasional visual nods to the science and innovation the exposition came to represent, but eventually we settle into the famous story — and once the titular star-cross'd lovers' romantic entanglements are afoot, the Chicago ambience becomes a bit of an afterthought.

 But that's quite all right, because there's a story to be told, and Wilkerson has assembled an agreeable mix of veteran players and relative newcomers, most all of whom have some clue about the poetry. Bedrock Nashville thespians like Chip Arnold, Jeff Boyet and Randall Lancaster give lucid and literate readings of their roles, while Peter Vann as Mercutio and Ben Van Diepen as Tybalt dramatically set the family conflict into motion.

In the middle of things is Martha Wilkinson as Juliet's Nurse. Wilkinson delivers her lines with a thick brogue and an Irish washerwoman enthusiasm that initially threatens cliché. But true to her professionalism and versatility, she reins in the excess and delivers a diverse and moving portrayal that re-establishes the character as the play's pivot point, a touchstone for both high humor and abject tragedy.

Young Matthew Raich, seen earlier this season in a small but noteworthy role in Blackbird Theater's Arcadia, is Romeo, and while his performance doesn't embody the highest level of classical declamation, his passion makes up for it. He comes off as a likable lad, someone worth rooting for, and he admirably meets the production's fairly stiff physical demands, especially in the exhilarating balcony scene. His is a somewhat low-key but affecting reading, and when he speaks of Juliet's "strong proof of chastity," we might even believe in romantic idealism again.

And now a few words in praise of wispy Emily Landham, whose Juliet clearly ranks among the finest individual performances on an open-air Nashville stage in some time. Not that Juliet was ever a shrinking violet, but Landham's lassie is a spunky Chicago girl with vision for herself, a fiery concern for her beloved, and an articulate determination that clearly lets us know who's in charge. Landham's quick and wiry presence projects both youthful femininity and precocious tough-mindedness. Better still, she has a great gift for speaking the Bard, finding novel approaches to enunciation and elision that result in something pretty close to conversational speech. Bravo for that. Her scenes with Wilkinson and Raich are the heart of this production.

Of course, Chicago or not, the play's rather gruesome ending is still intact. It's no Titus Andronicus, but by the final curtain, Mercutio, Tybalt, Paris, Romeo and Juliet are all gone, and we're left with Friar Laurence's rather obvious and windy wrap-up.

Regardless, this Romeo & Juliet makes for a fine evening of theater. Rain threatened opening night, and things started a little late, but the faithful (and slightly) damp audience was well-rewarded with strong performances and imaginative direction. Nashville Shakepeare Festival's bold foray into the Second City proves to be a first-class production.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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