Imagine “West Side Story” without any songs. Or the Jets and the Sharks, wearing their trademark leather jackets, in a rumble with swords, but their names are Montague and Capulet.
That’s only the first scene in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s stunning production of “Romeo and Juliet,” which opened in its Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier Wednesday Sept. 22, and it gets better from there.
This bold interpretation was envisioned and directed by Gale Edwards, a laurel-laden director from Australia, who has worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company. This is her Chicago Shakespeare debut.
The text is true Shakespeare, but the action takes place in some indeterminate blend of then and now. At one point Juliet’s father, Capulet, powerfully portrayed by John Judd, wears a tuxedo, and Lady Capulet, played by Judy Blue, has her blond hair in a French twist.
Romeo is Jeff Lillico and Juliet is Joy Farmer-Clary, both making their Chicago debuts. Farmer-Clary’s Juliet appears flighty and flip during the first act, but in the second she reveals a depth and passion that seared our hearts. And Lillico is dejected and exuberant by turns, full of adolescent angst.
The cast is strong. Ora Jones, a regular at CST, is Juliet’s Nurse. She has a formidable stage presence and is a brilliant comedienne. But she is also an integral part of the unfolding tragedy and her line “We are undone, lady. We are undone!” is delivered like a message from the coroner.
David Lively gives Friar Lawrence great heart, and you can feel the summer heat as the young toughs from the warring houses clash on the streets of Verona. Standouts are Ariel Shafir as Mercutio, the hot head; Zach Appelman, as the cold-as-ice Tybalt; and Steve Haggard as the aptly named Benvolio.
Congratulations to the Rick Sordelet, the fight director, for some of the most intense sword fighting scenes in live theater. His choreography is fast and furious and the young men performed it flawlessly.
The two-and-a-half hour production flew by and received a standing ovation from the opening night crowd. The show runs through Nov. 21 and with a validated parking ticket, the charge is $12. For information, visit chicagoshakes.com or call the box office at 312-595-5600.