Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company’s annual Free Theatre in the Parks program, launched in 2005. Each July it tours a classic — often, but not always, Shakespeare — to a variety of outdoor venues. This year’s Romeo and Juliet ventures far and wide: East Falls’ McMichael Park and Fishtown’s Penn Treaty Park in Philadelphia; East and West Goshen, Lansdale, Brookhaven, Kimberton, and West Chester in Pennsylvania; and Pilesgrove in New Jersey.
All dates have an indoor option or a rain date. We’re encouraged to bring lawn chairs, blankets, refreshments, and bug spray.
The play’s the thing
While the outdoor experience makes summer Shakespeare a popular tradition — our area also has Shakespeare in Clark Park, the Delaware Shakespeare Festival, and many others — the play is really the point. Director Kathryn MacMillan assembles a fine professional cast for Romeo and Juliet in a production that's appropriately versatile as well as clearly and sincerely acted.
Strong veteran actors play key roles: Matt Tallman makes a sympathetic Friar Laurence, whose good intentions lead to much grief; J.J. Van Name is his blustery counterpart as Juliet’s nurse. Griffin Stanton-Ameisen nails Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech and puckish behavior, yet also squares off dramatically with Christopher G. Anthony’s taciturn Tybalt. Paul Parente plays Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet, and Hannah Van Sciver excels as both Lady Capulet and Mercutio and Romeo’s pal Benvolio.
The title characters earn the most attention, of course, and both are superb: Trevor William Fayle’s youthful idealism and enthusiasm suit Romeo well. He’s believable as the teenager who starts the play gaga about some girl named Rosaline, whom we never meet, before falling head over heels for Juliet. Campbell O’Hare matches him well, with Juliet’s energetic teenage romanticism and impetuousness. Their scenes together crackle.
Framing the action
MacMillan (perhaps for expediency, or maybe because CCTC’s production are sometimes people’s first Shakespeare — since it almost literally lands in their backyards) takes a stolid, traditional approach. This emphasizes clarity but feels perfunctory — though, I confess, my reaction may not be typical because I’ve seen so many Romeo and Juliet productions. Meghan Jones’s scenic pieces (three flimsy arches with curtained entrances and a few furniture pieces), Asaki Kuruma’s costumes ( drab and nondescript, other than Juliet’s), and Daniel Ison’s passive music don’t establish time, place, or a directorial point of view.
The play is produced with few cuts, resulting in a two hour-and-40-minute performance that lacks urgency. This Romeo and Juliet is a safe start for new audiences, but won’t challenge experienced theatergoers. A leaner, more driven production that reached out and grabbed us with more specificity (and more risks) might satisfy everyone.
Perhaps being outdoors is enough, though. At the Morris Arboretum performance, the crowd lounging on a gentle grassy slope, trees and sculptures creating a lush background, and birds chirping and dragonflies swooping above us all combined delightfully. Early scenes played in sunlight, as when first performed over 400 years ago, and the sunset seemed timed perfectly to frame the play’s tragic finale. Maybe it’s best not to compete with all that.