Review: Student cast infuses play with youthful athleticism

Wherefore art thou, Romeo?

University Theatre's production of "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare's play about "star-cross'd lovers," is as impressive for its swordplay as for its cast's fairly consistent grasp of Shakespearean wordplay.

Under the direction of Jack Wright, the play's youthful and athletic cast successfully recreates the story of Verona's most famous couple, whose families' ancient feud dooms their romance and lives.

The actors exhibited tremendous skill in the fight scenes. Always exuberant and very fast, only rarely do these scenes show any signs of being staged. Directed by guest fight coordinator D.C. Wright, assisted by Leslie Bennett and Christopher Wheatley, the fight scenes -- especially the opening brawl between the Montagues and the Capulets -- are a feast of action as the actors leap, plunge and parry across the stage.

Jennifer Luck's set design is a multilevel enclosure with stationary walls, marked by window and door openings. Designed to represent both interiors and exteriors, it is loosely divided into three parts, the sides representing the homes of either Capulets or Montagues. Jack Wright has made excellent use of this space to keep the play moving at an even clip. Scenes shift easily as characters enter or exit seamlessly at various parts of the huge set.

Robbie Jones' costumes are another visual reminder of the Capulet-Montague feud. Capulets wear bright shades of red and orange; Montagues sport blues and blacks. The Renaissance-style look is completed by shades of yellow and brown, worn by the servants, and shades of purple for the Prince and his kinsmen. The result is another feast for the eyes. The mass of color is especially impressive when the cast fills the stage for some of Bennett's striking dance choreography in Act I.

A strong cast is led by Wheatley as Romeo; the young men exude the brash confidence and youthful enthusiasm that lead them into and out of love and more often into battle. Wheatley's own athleticism dominates his scenes, but he exhibits very subtle choices as he navigates Romeo's constantly changing emotional state, making this Romeo no mere callow youth.

Elisabeth Ahrens' Juliet is a child-woman, silly or pensive by turns. Ahrens successfully conveys Juliet's sprightliness and humor, but is especially powerful in the second act as she contemplates the strange twists of fate that have brought her to the moment of faking her own death.

As Romeo's staunch friends Benvolio and Mercutio, Evan Grosshans and Aaron Champion command the audience's attention from the stage. Champion's Mercutio is impulsive and arrogant; Grosshans' loquacious Benvolio is a charmer.

Megan Frances Carter has great comic timing as the Nurse, reveling in her bawdy but loving nature. Patrick Carriere and Samara Naeymi, and Jeremy Riggs and Samantha Raines give strong performances as the Capulet and Montague parents. Dylan Hilpman swaggers as a churlish, petulant Tybalt.

All of the performers seem very comfortable most of the time with Shakespeare's language, and their efforts are rewarded throughout the night by an attentive and responsive audience.

Jack Wright's direction carries the production through its comic and tragic complexity, a series of events set in motion by human pride and arrogance, and always shadowed by death.

The play continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Kansas University's Crafton-Preyer Theatre. Call 864-3982 for tickets.

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