Conservative firebrands lament that our youth are losing their innocence earlier and earlier, victims of television, films, the Internet, and a permissive culture. Images of a teenage gangster holding a gun or an adolescent girl in provocative garb supposedly reveal failings unique to particular communities in our time.
These are lies, of course. Proof is found in an unexpected text, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, as director Lucinda Danner Gainey reminds us in her Bare Theatre production. It portrays a twelfth-century Verona where a thirteen-year-old Juliet is fair game for marriage among the upper crust, and gangs of boys go armed in public, with reason.
Gainey particularly focuses on the social schism that so divides two families they pass their hatreds down through generations. If, at first, we wink at the irrepressible invective of Sampson and Gregory (Joshua Ammons and Benjamin Tarlton), two brash young Montague punks out looking for a fight, we're later caught up short by their panic when matters escalate out of their hands. The pair's errant children's crusade reflects their elders' enmity, which they've swallowed whole. By the time Lord Capulet (Michael Parker) tries to defuse hostilities, at least for the duration of a party at his estate, by complimenting young Romeo and ordering Tybalt (George Labusohr) to stand down, the conflict has too much momentum to be annulled by a single countermand. The familiar tragedy plays out from there.
There is much to praise in Maegan Mercer-Bourne's authoritative Prince, Tara Nicole Williams's joyous velocity as Mercutio, Emily James's good reading of Benvolio, and Laura Parker's incisive, sometimes comic turn as the Capulet's nurse. Amanda Lee Scherle's chilly cameo as Lady Capulet and Loren Armitage's solid Friar Lawrence cannot be ignored, and Bonnie Raddatz's sumptuous costumes place us solidly in the period.
But we should caution companies—not for the first time—about the treacherous acoustics of the Forest Theatre's stonewall stage, which left some voices doubled and others inaudible throughout the performance, adding to intelligibility problems when a grief-stricken Juliet (McKenna Waldron) sped through certain passages. She and our Romeo (Christopher McBennett) are clearly young actors of talent, but with questionable range at this point in their development. I expect both will grow during this production, as the most recent faces in a story that has been ceaselessly reiterated for centuries as old hatreds take their greatest toll on the young.