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By D. A. Blackburn
Saturday night the Michigan Shakespeare Festival officially kicked off its 16th season with “Romeo & Juliet.” A more fitting opening could not have been had. Not only because the company chose to open the festival with Shakespeare’s best known, most loved work, but also because they opted to recognize recently retired Artistic Director John Neville-Andrews and publicly pass the torch to Janice Blixt.
And this is as much the story of the 2010 MSF, as the three productions to grace the stage of the Michael Baughman Theatre (Jackson Community College) this season. Neville-Andrews, after all, had been the driving force and public face of the festival for some 13 seasons, and a changing of the guard is sure to produce a different result.
On the surface, the 2010 MSF looks and feels much the same as years past — held in the same venue, with the same decorations and familiar pre-show discussion groups — but sitting for “Romeo & Juliet,” or even breezing through the show program, the differences are readily apparent.
Blixt, a Hilberry Theatre alum and Chicago transplant, has stocked her cast largely with Chicago talent. There are far fewer Michigan thespians on stage than in previous years, and while the festival has always drawn performers from afar, the skew toward actors from the windy city seems disproportionate.
Perhaps even more noticeable is Blixt’s very pure concept for “Romeo & Juliet,” for which she also serves as director. In recent years, the festival has featured shows of a decidedly different tact — higher concept productions taking the Bard’s poetry in fresh directions. Neville-Andrews’ “The Tempest” (2009) is a fine recent example. But Blixt’s turn inward, burrowing into the script for inspiration, isn’t all bad. The result is a very fine, funny (despite its tragic classification), romantic work — the likes of which were probably the Bard’s own intent.
Blixt has studied deeply into the work’s characters with the diligence of an accomplished academic, and brings them to the stage as exceedingly rich personas. There is a great comedic element to many of the characters in “Romeo & Juliet,” and Blixt has done good work in bringing this to the surface. Likewise, her deep understanding of the language makes for a very accessible production. While Shakespeare can bog some audience members down in its densely packed, antiquated dialogue, she has found a strong balance in the language bringing forth both its beauty and its message.
The production boasts a strong cast, well in step with their director. Wesley Scott and Amanda Reader make a fine pair of star-crossed lovers. Together they give audiences a very poignant balcony scene and are also a very appealing wedding/wedding night.
Steven Alan O’Brien makes a fine impression as Prince Escalus, performing with a superb authority, particularly at the end of act one, in banishing Romeo from Verona. Jeffrey Booth Stringer’s Father Lawrence, repentant for his complicity in the actions that led to the lovers’ demise, is excellent.
Scott Stangland’s somewhat devious Mercutio, too, adds greatly to the production, and marks the high point of David Blixt’s “violence design” (fight choreography) that includes some excellently choreographed swordsmanship.
If the show’s cast has a weak link, it is Brandon St. Clair Saunders as Benvolio, whose opening night performance was riddled with flawed dialogue.
“Romeo & Juliet” is par for the MSF course with regard to production value, though for 2010 the stage is fresh. (Years past have frequently used the same massive set, unused last year for budgetary reasons). The production’s sets by Jeromy Hopgood are simple and efficient. David Stoughton’s lighting design carries much of the burden of establishing time and space for the work, and does so admirably. Kate Hopgood’s subtle but effective sound design is executed very well.
Sally Converse-Doucette’s costuming is very attractive and detailed, though perhaps a bit modern for a production that fails, in any other way, to alter the work’s setting in time.
The final result is a largely satisfying “Romeo & Juliet,” and as an indication of things to come, the production leads one to believe that the festival as a whole is in good hands. Of course, there are two more productions to come (“The Comedy of Errors” and “Driving Miss Daisy”). But at present, Blixt appears a worthy successor to the man who made the festival what it is today. John Neville-Andrews can rest easy, and drink his champagne — a gift from the board — in peace. His gem is in good hands.
‘Romeo & Juliet’
Michigan Shakespeare Festival, Michael Baughman Theatre on the campus of Jackson Community College, 2111 Emmons Rd., Jackson. Plays in repertory through Aug. 8. $15-$35. 517-998-3673. http://www.michiganshakespearefestival.com