A spring-evening picnic on a gently sloping Forest Park greensward offers pleasure enough. How then to measure the delight provided by the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis' open-air Romeo & Juliet, which so winningly combines the beauty of art and nature, with the slowly blackening sky mirroring the play's own inexorable movement from light to dark, from antic to tragic? Like young lovers Romeo and Juliet, the festival's inaugural production has had its star-crossed moments -- rain dogged the play's first week, preventing a shakedown tech rehearsal, canceling the June 3 performance and threatening to wash away others -- but by last weekend the clouds had at last parted and more than just the sun was shining.
Even for those who have never seen or read the play, Romeo & Juliet has an almost primal familiarity, its basic narrative recurring in endless pop-culture variations, from West Side Story to Titanic. Because of the story's seeming ubiquity, the temptation to subvert or modernize (as in Baz Luhrmann's hyperkinetic, period-conflating Romeo + Juliet) proves almost irresistible, but director PJ Paparelli hews closely to the Bard's text. Instead of attempting to reinvent the play, Paparelli works to reveal its many facets, emphasizing the physicality and endlessly punning (and profane) comedy established in the first scene. In remembering Romeo & Juliet, we tend to focus on the swooning romanticism and corpse-strewn finish -- in which the stage becomes so absurdly crowded with bodies that it recalls the overstuffed stateroom in A Night at the Opera -- but until the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt in Act 3, the play seems more funny than fatalistic. Paparelli successfully mines that rich vein of humor, striking comic gold in Mercutio's salacious joking, crotch-grabbing and mock-humping (blue material that, during the car ride home, likely caused some equally hilarious questioning of parents by the surprising number of young children in attendance). Far from undercutting the essential seriousness of the play, the joyful tone of the first half makes the calamitous end-of-innocence events of the second all the more stark and affecting.
Finding age-appropriate actors capable of handling Romeo & Juliet's manic-depressive mood swing was no doubt a challenge, but Paparelli successfully meets it. Sean McNall and Jennifer Ikeda, who play the title couple, are both recent graduates of Juilliard, and their obvious youth lends a touching vulnerability to the characters, making Romeo and Juliet's wildly impulsive actions more understandable and thus forgivable. The fresh-faced McNall, in fact, at first seems almost too boyish, but the naïveté and brashness he projects eventually prove charming -- to both Juliet and the audience -- and his childlike actions and reactions (be it his sulking and temper tantrum while hiding at Friar Laurence's or his gymnastic maneuvers on the set's walls and balconies) wonderfully convey Romeo's tragically impetuous nature. Ikeda, strongly communicating Juliet's own willfulness and adolescent changeability, makes a winning match for McNall. Those in the key supporting roles display the same high standards, particularly Joneal Joplin, who lends Friar Laurence a powerful gravitas, and Michael Milligan and Jodie McKlintock, who play outrageous provocateurs Mercutio and the Nurse.
Romeo & Juliet has its minor weaknesses -- some hesitancy in tertiary parts and an overchoreographed slickness to fight scenes that should at least simulate the raw messiness of battle -- but carping seems churlish when not only is the admission free but the production is so generally fine. Except for the opening week's periodic downpours, a more promising beginning to the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis would be hard to imagine.