Peoples Theatre

The wonderful thing about Shakespeare is how he flourishes wherever you plant him. Here’s a Romeo and Juliet played across the street from the Frigid Fluid Company, in a stone courtyard fronting a landscaped Northwestern railroad embankment, where a nearby fruit tree drops an occasional apple into the tragedy, the sickly sweet smell of the Blommer chocolate factory perfumes Verona, and commuter trains chug through the crises. Add passersby staring dumbfounded at actors in doublet and hose and Tribune trucks noisily heading for the Freedom Center–all part of the very Chicago ambience of this Peoples Theatre inaugural offering.

Despite the distractions, their Shakespeare proves a dedicated journeyman effort, the Bard on the cheap but with the soul and the story well preserved. (And the very intrusions of an outdoor performance can’t be that different from Shakespeare’s day, when street cries penetrated the Globe, vendors hawked their wares, the groundlings pushed and heckled, and a bored audience would talk right through the stage action.)

The very physical setting (more appropriate for West Side Story than its source) plays right into Derek Voy’s in-the-round staging. A thinly masked fire escape serves as Juliet’s balcony, and Romeo hugs the telephone pole that overhangs it. The courtyard’s sliding metal gate becomes the entrance to Friar Laurence’s cell. The abundant wildflowers and tiger lilies planted on the steep embankment suggest the monk’s magic garden of herbs and poisons and the stubby trees the Capulets’ orchard. Laurence Bryan’s well-choreographed street brawls surge across the edge of the slope or swirl around the audience so you wish your chairs could swivel. And the action sometimes freezes when a train whizzes by.

At times the rambling blocking and assorted shouting feel like ends in themselves, but the play, with all its efficient heartbreak, shoulders its way through the clutter and strikes home. Particularly if you’re new to Romeo and Juliet, the Peoples choice is no bad introduction. (A lot of potential Shakespeare lovers never get beyond that first hammy Romeo and Juliet they are forced to see because their English teacher assumes that, being teenagers themselves, they just have to sympathize.)

Steve Young and Sharon Frei, the star-crossed lovers, seem stronger apart than together, so contrasted is their acting. Picture-perfect Frei is endowed with a bell-like little-girl voice (that she can nonetheless pro- ject like a Valkyrie) and a reticence that even in passion’s wildest frenzy touches you with Juliet’s fear of her feelings. (Chicago born, Frei should drop the broad English accent.) With a rich and supple voice, Young is technically skilled, but that’s not enough. Romeo’s boyish dreaminess, the adolescent aimlessness that turns to wildfire ardor, the ferocious desire to consume himself in his own longings–they’re not to be found in Young’s crisp, decisive, and all too practical portrayal. (Young would make a great Henry V or Laertes, where you can approach hamminess without peril.)

Young’s reliance on technique over risk-taking runs through much of Voy’s conservative staging. Still, American actors doing Shakespeare should err in that direction; you can always dig out the subtexts after you’ve attended to the mechanics of making blank verse breathe.

Better-targeted work comes from Michael Barto as Mercutio, a medieval misfit whose self-mockery rages through his obscurest bawdiness. Dale Young as stage-managing Friar Laurence, John Weeks as the dull wimp Paris, and Susan Felder as the garrulous Nurse cut few corners to fill their roles. Winning the prize for the riskiest, least predictable performance is Michael Garcia as Capulet; Garcia plays Juliet’s dad not as the usual blustering moron (though he erupts well when she refuses to marry Paris) but as a broken man distracted by his nephew Tybalt’s death and clearly no more fit than his daughter to cope with tragedy. A few more grace notes like Garcia’s would deepen considerably this still creditable Romeo and Juliet. It wouldn’t hurt to reroute the trains either.

The Peoples Theatre is donating all postproduction profits to Glenkirk, a Northbrook home that serves over 900 infants, children, and adults who have developmental disabilities.