The busy streets of Chicago are broken by automatic gunfire as Romeo and Juliet opens, in this 1920s-Chicago version of the classic love tragedy. It’s the Children’s Theatre of Maine, but this production is for kids 10 and up. A mother and baby are among the first to fall as the Montague/Capulet feud heats up.
The story line is familiar: Teenagers fall in love, without obeying the constraints of social or family repercussions. Each must hide true feelings from adults, who will use logic to quash that which is purely emotional. The grownups, determined to have their way, make unreasonable decrees — at least by today’s standards — and force the hands of the lovers.
All the while, teenagers’ proclivities to make bad choices result in serious consequences for Romeo, and a sympathetic counselor must devise a complex scheme to rescue young love from adult rage. In one of Shakespeare’s classic twists, a vital message is not conveyed, ripping tragedy from the jaws of joyous reunion.
These actors — mostly teenagers themselves, or in their early twenties — know well both the fictional story and its real-life themes. Julie Civiello, who alternates with Alex Brinkman-Young in the role of Juliet, is sensitive and strong in the role of the 14-year-old lover, whose father thinks her too young to marry, until he meets the "right man" for her. Who is, of course, not Romeo (Mark Friedlander) but Paris (Adam Gutgsell), a powerful nobleman and friend of the prince of Verona.
Civiello reaches deep into her own heart, tugging at Romeo and the audience as she struggles between love and duty. The balcony scene is sweet, earnest, and loving, though tinged with the despair of those who know they must oppose their parents’ will.
It results in a beautiful mimed wedding ceremony with soft lighting giving the couple their moment amid the chaos of the family feud. The music and lights throughout the production add to the ambience, including a swing-dancing masquerade ball at which Romeo first truly meets Juliet.
The supporting cast is generally strong. Mercutio (Brian Hinds) and Juliet’s nurse (Shannon Campbell) are wonderfully ribald, playing to the base elements in the audience, even as the web of sorrow draws nearer about them. Some of the lines are hard to hear, however, either because they are spoken too fast or because of the acoustics in the Children’s Theater space.
Chris Gyngell (as Romeo’s kinsman and friend Benvolio) speaks too quickly for any of his lines to be comprehensible. It is a sad casting choice, for his devotion to Romeo is one of Shakespeare’s great friendships.
The choice of this play is bold, dealing with adult and teen themes together, mixing no small amount of violence, both physical and emotional. And yet, these are important issues today, as they were in Elizabethan times.
Parents still strive for what is best for their children, even as those children redefine their own dreams. Youthful rebellion can lead not just to adult-feared failure but also to child-hoped success, or at least a valuable lesson learned. Adults and children should communicate more openly, not hiding behind preconceived ideas or latent fears. The real burden of this falls to the parents, who must create an environment of open, loving honesty, not a charade of fear and obedience.
As a reminder stands Shakespeare: With young lovers poised on the brink of their future together, adults and the stars conspire against them, bringing all to grief.Romeo and Juliet
Written by William Shakespeare. Directed by Pamela DiPasquale. With Mark Friedlander, Julie Civiello, Alex Brinkman-Young, and Brian Hinds. At Children’s Theatre of Maine, through Jan. 25. Call (207) 878-2774.
• Carolyn Gage’s one-act Calamity Jane Sends a Message to her Daughter won the Boston Play Slam, on January 13. The audience chose the single-actor short play as the best of the lot. It was performed by Leslie Bernardini, who had also performed Gage’s play The Parmachene Belle in an off-Broadway festival early in 2003. Gage is raising money to bring both shows to Portland.
• Another reason to head to Mad Horse’s production of The Bacchae in mid-February: The Portland Stage Studio Theater expects to have new seating! In six months of fund-raising, actors and others put together $2100, enough to buy 50 new chairs, leaving 35 old chairs still to be replaced, at a cost of about $1500, plus shipping. Be sure to thank the cast and crew of The Food Chain and Wicked for their efforts.