Nick Wills & Brittany “BeeBee” Patillo in Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Zachary Burrell Photography

Romeo and Juliet

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Matt Wallace 

A review by Tory Parker 

Entire contents are copyright © 2024 by Tory Parker. All rights reserved.

Dearest Gentle Reader, the days (and nights) are heating up, the cicadas have started their ubiquitous humming, and the schools are closed, which can only mean one thing: it is high time the ton returns to Central Park. 

The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival, the longest-running, free, non-ticketed Shakespeare festival in the United States, opened its 64th season on May 31, on what I can only describe as the most picture-perfect late-spring evening, to an audience of over 1,000 people. When Producing Artistic Director Matt Wallace started his enthusiastic curtain speech, welcoming the audience to Central Park and asking for a show of hands for first-time visitors, there was a smattering of shy waves throughout the crowd. For returning visitors, a sea of hands of all ages, colors, sizes–and even some paws–roared into the air. For many, you can tell, this is a homecoming. 

And what a way to kick off a season. 

If you, like me, are in the thick of Bridgerton Brain Rot as we dutifully await the second half of season 3, then Kentucky Shakespeare has the balm for what ails you. This adaptation of Shakespeare’s beloved tale of woe may claim to take place in Verona, but you would be forgiven for believing we’re actually in Grosvenor Square, 1813. And while you might be looking for the Viscountess Bridgerton and her bounty of perfectly handsome sons and perfectly beautiful daughters, you’re far more likely to find two households, both alike in dignity. 

Now you might be saying “Tory, maybe you’re just projecting because you’ve rewatched the first half of season 3 thrice in two weeks. Just because they’re in Regency attire doesn’t automatically make it Bridgerton!” WRONG! Because the music throughout is not Rossini or Beethoven. It’s orchestral covers of an opus by far superior composers, including Lady Gaga, Hozier, and (most prominently) Taylor Swift. And as much as I love our prim and proper ladies and gents of Jane Austen, the aesthetic doesn’t exactly lend itself to the heated passion of a steamy Verona love affair-turned-homicide, or even a shirtless post-coital embrace. Do you know what does?? Bridgerton!!

The device fits alongside Shakespeare’s romance like a hand in a glove for act one. We have down bad lovers, roguish rakes, tender comedic relief in the side characters, and even the quintessential overbearing marriage-minded Mamas. Rather than Lady Whistledown, we have Queen Charlotte, aka the striking Krystal Waller as Escalus, the setter of the scene. Her sky-high wig and broad skirts can’t even top Waller’s commanding tone and presence. It’s pretty clear why this tenuous peace treaty between feuding families works: no one in the ton wants this woman upset with them. And that authority seems to be the only thing keeping the powder keg from blowing up. 

But Spoilers: the hot young people getting REDACTED in a gazebo in Bridgerton? They die in this one. And boy is it hard to see them go. 

Of the young, Count Paris (played by homecoming king, Crystian Wiltshire) most closely ascribes to the rigidity of this world. But playing by the rules just leads to a bloody end. Wiltshire’s Paris is so charismatic, that it’s hard to root against him. But if you’re sitting there wondering why she doesn’t just marry this sweet guy, then you don’t get it. And you don’t know what tennis is. And so he has to die. 

Justin Jackson, usually lending his tall personage to the gallant hero or the charming comedic relief, gives a Tybalt who is just barely contained. His rage bubbles mere millimeters below the surface, as if trapped beneath his waistcoat, grating on his skin, to the point that he’s literally itching for a fight.

He meets his match in Mollie Murk’s Mercutio, which is nothing short of revelatory. A flashy, mouthy, lascivious rake, Mercutio can sometimes, in lesser hands, feel like a weird fit for the oft-heartsick Romeo’s closest friend, but in Murk’s possession, the friendship not only makes perfect sense, it’s imperative. Murk’s Mercutio is cocksure and loveable, as easily moved to a kiss as to a punch, charming and sharp-witted, but never as bloodthirsty as he is thirsty. Until he is not. The puns spat as he feels himself dying are not pittled for laughs, but come defiantly and quickly as if they too gush from a wound. It’s a masterful turn, from laughing to screaming. And once he is gone, we the audience, like Romeo, feel the loss deeply. 

Neill Robertson’s Friar Lawrence is witty and exasperated–much more the wizard behind the curtain than the hermetic recluse, mentor to Romeo, and trapped between what is of the law, and what is of God. After Lord Capulet’s vicious outburst of anger (delivered with bone-chilling grit by Tom Luce) at Juliet, we don’t mind so much that Lord Capulet has to live with the consequences of his pointless feud and maltreatment of his young daughter, but for the first time, I found myself in tears at the reality that Lawrence has to live with his.

To see Murk and Robertson in these roles is to see parts of Romeo and Juliet for the first time. Both actors find the tender faultline between comedy and tragedy and grind their fists into it, leaving the audience bruised. 

Brittany “Beebee” Patillo, unsurprisingly, wears the modern mannerisms of a teenage girl in the throes of love with effervescent charm and light. Juliet, the character, much like Beebee, the actor, is not one to be messed with and never lets someone else leave with the last word. She is a lovely pair with Abigail Bailey Maupin’s Nurse, whose breathless prattle makes Juliet look even more stable by comparison. Patillo captures her dichotomy as a sensible girl, all at once overwhelmed with strange feelings, struggling with how to operate under such unprecedented internal and external turmoil. 

Her Romeo, the bleeding-hearted Nick Willis, is a perfect match. Many Romeos are victims of their love, made dumb with fanciful thought. Willis’ Romeo finds his passion deeply rooted and wrestles with his love as Hamlet with madness. To quote Bridgerton season 3, episode 4, his love is “…a feeling that is like torture. But one I cannot, will not, do not want to give up.” Willis brings a cheeky confidence alongside Romeo’s tenderness that is genuinely swoon-worthy. If you’re one of the (boring, uninspired) naysayers who hem and haw about the “unbelievability” of love at first sight, let these two convince you otherwise. I think they can.  

There is a moment during their tomb scene, seen through a beautifully crafted, slatted window of light, that was such a genuinely heart-stuttering surprise of a directorial choice that it left me winded. I will not spoil it for you, Dearest Reader, but know that you, like me, may never feel that moment in the tomb the same way again. 

So if you’re craving the happy ending, swelling-crescendo final kiss of a season finale of Bridgerton, you’ll likely have to wait until June 13 (when the rest of season 3 airs.) But if you’re craving the longing, the danger, the anguish, the passion, and the comedy, you Must! Make! Haste! to Central Park this summer. 

Yours Truly, 

Shady Whistledown 

Featuring Tajleed Hardy, Jon Huffman, Justin Jackson, Ebony Jordan, Tom Luce, Abigail Bailey Maupin, Gregory Maupin, Mollie Murk, Brittany “BeeBee” Patillo, Jennifer Reyes, Neill Robertson, Krystal Waller, Kyle Ware, Nick Wills, & Crystian Wiltshire (Escalus understudy June 14-16 Mary Audrey Baunjoko)

Romeo and Juliet

Part of Kentucky Shakespeare’s Festival in Central Park 

May 30-June 16; July 17, 20, 23, 26

Kentucky Shakespeare
C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater
Central Park in Historic Old Louisville
1340 South Fourth Street
Louisville, KY 40208

Tory Parker, originally from West Virginia, is now a proud Kentuckian as well. In Louisville, she’s worked and/or performed with Actors Theatre of Louisville, Claddagh Theatre Company, the Chamber Theatre, Bellarmine University, Wayward Actors Company, Derby City Playwrights, Company OutCast, SHOTZ, Highview Arts Center, and director Emily Grimany. She is a co-founding artist of the queer theatre collaborative, three witches shakespeare, and of Untitled Louisville Theatre Company. As a playwright, her full-length drama, Recommended for You.