Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Courtyard)

Romeo and Juliet

At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Courtyard)

By Dan Zeff

Chicago – The Chicago Shakespeare Theater revival of “Romeo and Juliet” is set in an unnamed city in August 2020, attempting to make relevant connections between Shakespeare’s 16th century tale of gang violence and the violence in American society today. It’s a laudable goal, but it fails, at least in the production at the CST, which is fatally undercut by questionable casting and distracting visual designs.

“Romeo and Juliet” is a great love story, but it requires credible lovers. That’s a tall order, especially because Juliet, who dominates the second half of the play, is supposed to be in her early teens. A successful production will feature an actress talented enough to handle the demands of the role while looking like a girl maybe 14 years old.

Brittany Bellizeare is cast as Juliet and she scarcely looks like a girl just leaving adolescence. Bellizeare looks to be in her mid 20’s (she’s old enough to have earned a master’s degree in fine art) and that diminishes the pathos as well as the tragedy of Juliet’s fate. In checking the playbill, I couldn’t find any Shakespeare credits for Bellizeare, suggesting this is her first professional appearance in a Shakespeare play, much less one of the Bard’s most famous and most challenging leading roles. For whatever reasons, she isn’t right for the role.

Photo Credit-Liz Lauren

The weakness in the Juliet casting is critical but it isn’t the only problem. There is no chemistry between the character and Edgar Miguel Sanchez’s young Romeo, though Sanchez does seem more credible in his role. The initial; meeting of the young couple at the Capulet ball passes so quickly that the boy and the girl barely have time to look each other over, much less establish an erotic connection that converts them into instant lovers. Without that spark, the play is drained of its energy and its ascent to tragedy, not to mention neutralizing some of Shakespeare’s most memorable poetry.

There are a few supporting performances that inject some drama and comedy into the otherwise underacted main narrative. James Newcomb is a powerful Mr. Capulet, and his fiery upbraiding of his daughter for refusing to marry her kinsman Paris is a master class in parental rage. Newcomb also expresses the father’s grief at Juliet’s supposed death,, his overwhelming anguish subverted by an inexplicable comic gesture by the Friar that draws giggles from the audience and disrupts what should have been a heartbreaking scene of sorrow.

Nate Burger is fine as Mercutio, a macho young man who still speaks the famous Queen Mab monologue with sensitivity and some charm. Sam Pearson is excellent as the truculent Tybalt and Betsy Aidem is outstanding as Juliet’s saucy nurse. Their performances provide only temporary relief from the sluggishness of the production, much of the difficulty the result of too many actors not ready to meet the requirements of Shakespeare’s verse.

  Photo Credit-Liz Lauren

The visual designs also raise questions. For the Capulet house, Scott Davis designed a homespun front porch dominated by a swing, not the kind of homespun architecture one would expect from one of the ruling families in the city. Aaron Spivey’s lighting is most notable for sudden flashes of intense light that separate the scenes and jar the viewer. Mieka van der Ploeg’s costumes range from Mr. Capulet’s tuxedo to the flashy grunge styles worn by the two gangs. There is a class system implied in the play that is blurred by the productions bizarre assortment of wearing apparel.

The revival tries to establish parallels between Shakespeare’s 16th century Verona and the modern unidentified CST locale. The stated goal is to point the way to a better, nonviolent future for today’s troubled young people. It’s a noble hope but I doubt that the CST revival will have any impact on reducing contemporary urban violence. The final scene attempts to suggest a better future but comes off as melodramatic and glib. But the play remains the destruction of two attractive young people who are victimized by a combination of bad luck and unnecessary hatreds beyond their control. Social criticism and social remedies are intrusions.

Ultimately, the CST revival is defeated by the undercasting of the major roles as well as many of the complementary roles.       Still, the production does have its moments, being a Shakespeare play it could hardly be otherwise. The most convincing scenes are the bloody gang fight that leads to the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt and the later passionate eruptions of James Newcomb’s brilliant Mr. Capulet. But they aren’t enough.

“Romeo and Juliet” gets a rating of

“Romeo and Juliet” runs through December 22 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier. Performances are Wednesday at 1 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $35 to $90. Call 312 595 5600 or visit:

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