Sophia Retone & Leah Cohen in Romeo & Juliet. Photo:CTC 

Romeo & Juliet

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jennifer Pennington

A review by Ben Gierhart

Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Ben Gierhart. All rights reserved.

Something that is often not portrayed in productions of Romeo & Juliet is the eponymous characters’ youth. Shakespeare intended to capture the passion of young people in love for the first time. After all, it’s not the love story that is what is truly timeless about this play. It is the notion that to be young is to experience wild emotions at all times and to experience them as though one were the first to ever feel them. In this reviewer’s opinion, that is precisely why high school casts of this particular play often work especially well.

And what a time to be a young person. High school is already a tumultuous period in most people’s lives. Add that to the pressures of the pandemic and the unique challenges of being a burgeoning theater artist at this time, and you have a recipe for a supercharged production.

It’s an outright delight to experience Commonwealth Theatre Center’s Young American Shakespeare Festival again, albeit somewhat unconventionally. Produced on a makeshift stage in the Center’s parking lot – a holdover from early planning when the status of pandemic policies were largely unknowable – this supercharged Romeo & Juliet is open and unbounded in a way that it has never been before.

Jennifer Pennington adroitly directs her capable cast and injects the play with just enough modern sensibility to be interesting instead of distracting. Alexander Diakov plays the Chorus (Chorus/Influencer here), chronicling the events of the play like a social media star, complete with selfie stick. One could argue that this dates the production, but it also gives an oft-produced work a distinct point of view. In fact, this added twist gives the play an accessibility to its cast and young audience as well as a refreshing take on the material for its older one.

Leah Cohen and Sophia Retone – Romeo and Juliet respectively – are also non-traditional casting choices for the starstruck lovers, and as is most important, they knock it out of the park. At times, it’s unclear whether the intention is to have one of literature’s most iconic couples played as a lesbian relationship, a romance between non-binary people (pronouns were not provided with the online program), or simply as a flip on the classic men-play-all-the-parts tradition of Shakespeare’s day. After an endearing, offstage implied love scene, what is clear about this depiction of Romeo and Juliet is that none of that really matters when the relationship is depicted as honestly as this. This is perhaps this production’s most modern commentary of all. 

The rest of the cast is skilled and well-rehearsed, knitting together a more than capable ensemble. Standouts were Henry Stern’s well-delivered Lord Capulet, Laine Lloyd’s Nurse – a gift of a role for any actor – and Summer Clark’s Mercutio whose Queen Mab speech was all kinds of fun. Special attention must be paid to Jake Allen Miller’s sound design for adding another layer of youthful energy and grounding this classic text in the present.

All of this is to say that of course, these are actors who will only further polish their talents as they grow with their art, but precocious professionalism was never the best thing about the Young American Shakespeare Festival anyway: It’s really about potential. These actors represent some of the best of what the next generation of Louisville talent holds, and after a daunting pandemic, and after art seems to finally be gaining a long-awaited, renewed foothold, it’s a welcome sight. 

Romeo & Juliet

May 15  @ 2:00 pm
May 13, 17, 20 & 22 @ 7:00 pm

Part of the Young American Shakespeare FestivalCommonwealth Theatre Center
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204

Ben Gierhart is a local actor, playwright, and director who has worked with several companies in town including The Bard’s Town, Pandora Productions, Savage Rose, and Centerstage. Ben serves on the board and in the acting ensemble for The Bard’s Town Theatre, and he is also a founding member of the Derby City Playwrights, a collective dedicated to creating new and exciting plays in Louisville.