Review: Romeo and Juliet (Muse of Fire Theatre)

| August 12, 2014
Heather Chrisler and Benjamin Ponce star as Juliet and Romeo in Muse of Fire Theatre's "Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakeseare, directed by Jemma Alix Levy. (photo credit: Teresa Foote)     
Romeo and Juliet

Written by William Shakespeare 
Directed by Jemma Alix Levy
at Ingraham Park, Evanston (map)
thru Sept 7  |  tickets: FREE   |  more info 

                   Read review


A beautifully presented love story not to be missed


Heather Chrisler and Benjamin Ponce star as Juliet and Romeo in Muse of Fire Theatre's "Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakeseare, directed by Jemma Alix Levy. (photo credit: Teresa Foote)

Muse of Fire Theatre Company presents
Romeo and Juliet

Review by Lauren Whalen 

Since I first read Romeo and Juliet in Mrs. Nergenah’s English class at age 14, my love for the Shakespearean tragedy has only grown. I get goosebumps every time I read or hear the opening line “Two households/both alike in dignity,” and have been known to tear up when Prince states at the end, “All are punished.” As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve become more aware what a challenging play it is. Adults often have issues with portraying realistic teenagers, the stakes can seem astonishingly low when only thumb-biting and swordplay are involved, and most significantly, the production can get overly stylized by directors who either want to compensate for the old-fashioned text, or strive to imitate Baz Luhrmann’s bombastic yet profound 1996 film. In the past year, I’ve been very lucky to experience two productions of Romeo and Juliet that not only grasped the beauty and terror of the story, but also revered it. The first was Joffrey Ballet’s astounding rendition last April. The second is Muse of Fire’s free outdoor staging, running through early September, free of charge, and not to be missed.

It’s a classic plot, maybe not completely original to Shakespeare, but attributed to him nonetheless in the centuries since. Two families are at war. It’s never revealed why – maybe at this point, they don’t remember either. Amid all the violence, love grows between the only children of each family. They meet by chance, woo and marry in secret, and, that same day, things go horribly, horribly wrong. Nothing is made right until several have lost their lives: not just the young lovers, but their family members, friends and potential suitors. What could have ended happily instead commences in bloodshed and grief.

Sure, Romeo and Juliet are impetuous teenagers, sometimes moody and bratty, constantly swept away by budding sexuality. But when the play is done right, I still root for them, and mourn them. Maybe the marriage wouldn’t have lasted, but why did their young lives have to be cut short by a petty feud? Why did two teens have to pay the price for their parents’ opposition?  In an age when senseless violence and death is as commonplace as the morning coffee we sip while reading horrific headlines, Romeo and Juliet is more relevant than ever. As Romeo says, “Oh me, what fray was here?/Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all./Here’s much you do with hate/but more with love.”

Romeo and Juliet’s director (and Muse of Fire Artistic Director) Jemma Alix Levy both understands and embraces these concepts. She doesn’t go overboard with stylistic choices or big ideas. She turns to the language, with its gorgeous wordplay and terrific imagery, and infuses action and emotion in the most compelling ways. Everything is kept simple, from Juliet’s white dress and ballet flats to the single wooden platform that serves a multitude of purposes. The outdoor scenery of Evanston’s Ingraham Park, with two large trees whose leaves rustle in the breeze (sometimes at the most opportune moments), is a compelling backdrop for a sweet love story that turns deeply sad.

Levy’s assembled a lovely, experienced ensemble and has coached them well – I never had to strain to hear anyone. Noël Huntzinger ‘s costumes are sweetly simple, and sunlight serves as effective illumination. Jon Beal’s stage combat design is perfectly executed, and the cast interacts with audience members just enough to make them feel involved rather than uncomfortable. Many actors play multiple roles with aplomb as well: Adrienne Matzen is particularly captivating, first as the antagonistic Tybalt, then as the opportunistic Apothecary. Reggie Robinson, Jr.’s Friar Laurence strikes the perfect balance of jovial father figure and cautious mentor. Chelsea Rolfes’ rich speaking voice gives the Chorus narration an extra dose of gravity, and Jon Beal’s Mercutio is daring charisma personified. Though Heather Chrisler’s Juliet verges on slightly shrieky at times, her elation, moodiness and passion are unique to adolescents: she’s not playing a parody of a teenage girl, but a real one. As Romeo, Benjamin Ponce is one of the youngest cast members, and his unwavering enthusiasm and puppyish charm are ideal for Shakespeare’s most naïve hero.

I do wish there would have been a slight pause in the middle of the show (the two hour-plus play is presented without an intermission), but as spectators provide their own seating, I was able to shift positions on my blanket, rather than wiggle around in an uncomfortable chair. Additionally, the free admission makes this Romeo and Juliet accessible to all, and watching everyone from families with little children to elderly couples engage and delight in the show is truly gratifying. This summer, Shakespeare is alive and well in Evanston.

Rating: ★★★★

Romeo and Juliet continues through September 7th at Ingraham Park, behind the Morton Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., Evanston (map), with performances Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm. (additional performances August 22-24 and 29-30 at 7:30pm at Evanston Public Library.)  Admission is FREE.  More information at time: 2 hours 15 minutes, no intermission)

Photos by Teresa Foote




Jon Beal (Mercutio, Balthazar, Servant), Brian Bradford (Benvolio, 2nd Watch), Heather Chrisler (Juliet), Meg Elliott (Nurse, Montague), Andrew Mehegan (Paris, Gregory, Citizen), Kelly Levander (Lady Capulet), Naomi Lindh (understudy), Adrienne Matzen (Tybalt, Apothecary), JT Nagle (Peter, Samson, Chief Warder), Joe Page (Capulet, Friar John), Benjamin Ponce (Romeo), Reggie Robinson, Jr. (Friar Laurence, Abraham), Chelsea Rolfes (Chorus, Prince)

behind the scenes

Jemma Alix Levy (director), Rachael Downing (stage manager), Noël Huntzinger (costume design), Jon Beal (fight choreographer), Brent T. Barnes (vocal coach), Naomi Lindh (house manager), Jeff Semmerling (mask design), Teresa Foote (photos)


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Category: 2014 Reviews, Lauren Whalen, Muse of Fire Theatre, Outdoor Performance, William Shakespeare

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