Two Lead Performances in Great Lakes Theater's "Romeo and Juliet" Carry the Epic Story of Doomed Love

The production is a bit of a mixed bag otherwise

click to enlarge Two Lead Performances in Great Lakes Theater's "Romeo and Juliet" Carry the Epic Story of Doomed Love
Roger Mastroianni

It's amazing how most of us never tire of watching the doomed love affair of that scrappy duo, Romeo and Juliet. William Shakespeare's classic has probably been performed billions of times, immersing audiences in the wonder of young romance and the tragedy resulting from lethal family feuds (not the kind hosted by Steve Harvey).

This production at the Great Lakes Theater is blessed with two excellent performances in the title roles. But some other characters aren't so deftly drawn, making this R&J a mixed bag.

As you know, it all happens in Verona, a tiny Italian burg where two families, the Capulets and the Montagues, are like the Hatfields and McCoys minus the chewing tobacco. But when Romeo and a bunch of his rowdy Montague dudes crash a Capulet bash, Juliet catches his eye and they instantly know they're a love match.

As 14-year-old Juliet, Angela Utrera brims with youthful innocence and blossoming adulthood as she teases and torments Romeo, played by Benjamin Bonenfant who happily prowls around and underneath that famous balcony. Indeed, the balcony scene is the high point, with each actor finding just the right nuances of desire and awkwardness to make their attraction for each other light up like high beam headlights on a dark country road.

Other supporting roles are played with sure intent, including hot-tempered Tybalt (Joe Wegner); compassionate but too-clever-by-half Friar Laurence (Jeffrey King), who comes up with the poison potion trick that turns deadly; and single-mom Capulet portrayed by Maggie Kettering, who stands out in the combined role of Lady C and her hubby.

Director Sara Bruner keeps the energy high throughout but allows a couple characterizations to veer off into scenery chewing. In the amusing role of Nurse, aide to Juliet, Kate Mulligan laughs so much through her first speech most of it was unintelligible. It isn't until Act Two, when sad circumstances have taken Nurse down a notch or two, that we can enjoy her more fully. As Benvolio, who begins and ends the proceedings, Aamar Malik Culbreth is a loyal and willing sidekick for Romeo. But he speeds through too many phrases and often allows the ends of his lines disappear into an inaudible murmur.

But the most curious decision by Bruner is the attempt to turn the arch and at times aggravating Mercutio (Stephen Michael Spencer) into the guy at the bar who thinks he's funny even after he's puked on your nachos. Spencer is a non-stop whirling dervish of in-your-face macho energy, which can be fun in smaller doses but works less well when his physical exertions detract from the character's witty language, especially in the Queen Mab speech.

The scenic design by Efren Delgadillo Jr. starts off as plain white walls with more arches than a McDonald's franchise meeting. But there are delightful surprises in store when the walls shimmer with evocative lighting effects, conjured by designer Rick Martin. Also outstanding are the fight scenes directed by Chris Duval that don't have the pre-programmed and over-rehearsed feel of so many theatrical blade scuffles.

This Romeo and Juliet ultimately finds its way to a moving conclusion, despite a couple performances that try way too hard to be thigh-slapping hilarious when clever and lively would have more than sufficed.

Romeo and Juliet
Through November 6 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theatre, Playhouse Square, 2067 E. 14th Street, 216-241-6000,
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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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