By Dottie Ashley

It was the worst act of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedy; it was the best act of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedy.

The preceding sentence represents a possible lead that Charles Dickens might have written, had he reviewed the 2015 Spoleto Festival-sponsored play, “Romeo and Juliet,” currently being performed at the Dock Street Theatre by the British cast of Shakespeare’s rebuilt Globe theatre, which overlooks London’s Thames River. Moreover, by participating in the Spoleto Festival U.S.A., the Globe is engaged in marking its American debut.

However, after spending over three hours of a Sunday afternoon observing the Globe’s version of “Romeo and Juliet,” I absolutely have to say that the first act was a disjointed, unappealing example of an attempt to place a new spin on an oft-seen production.

But don’t despair! The unbelievable turn-about in the second act almost totally obliterates the faults in the first one.

As the eager actors, who had been cavorting on stage while patrons filed into the theater, began to perform a sampling of some “folk genre” music with each playing a type of musical instrument to accompany the singing of senseless lyrics, the thought of dashing out the back door flashed through my head.

But then, I began to feel rather relieved to witness such an off-beat approach to a play that was first published in 1597.

Unfortunately, the repeated yelling of tuneless tunes and the stomping about soon became worse then merely annoying, causing the first act to be plagued by a rather rocky start. Actress Sarah Higgins, playing the kindly woman who spent many years caring for young Juliet and who is simply called “Nurse,” spouted so dense a Cockney accent that several people complained they couldn’t understand anything she said.

Moreover, in occupying the role of Mercutio, along with other characters, Steffen Donnelly paraded about, striking Vogue magazine-type poses, as if auditioning for a role in “Boys in the Band.” Meanwhile, Cassie Layton as Juliet, whose lone outfit appeared to be a version of a modern-day nurse’s uniform, spoke rather too softly and also seemed entirely too shy to plausibly portray a young girl, especially during that time, who would, even if ostensibly married amid a cloak of secrecy, actually stay the entire night with a male — even a mere teenage male.

Not only was the first act marred by the inappropriate manner, unrelated to the actual story, of several actors, but, additionally, one’s spirits were diminished by the depressing overly-abstract-expressionistic set made of planks that were nailed together to form a two-story outdoor deck, with a ladder serving as the stairs to Juliet’s room and balcony.

Adding to the atmosphere of displacement was the blatant fact that most of the costumes were so ill-conceived that they were painful to behold. Even though I had read that the costumes were to be designed as a mix of Elizabethan era and 1920s styles, the khaki slacks worn by several of the male and female characters were contemporary fare, as were the brown, unisex, semi-oxford type shoes. Perhaps in the late 1500s, buttons had not yet been invented, as the white shirts of the men were made without any means of closing their fronts and, therefore, were wide-opened, down to the waist, revealing tattoos reflecting either totally indecipherable images or horrible creatures. Happily, the elaborately tattooed bare chest and washboard-flat stomach of actor Steffen Donnelly (Mercutio) was perfect as a backdrop for the tattoo depicting a flock of birds in flight.

The atmosphere brightened considerably, as if the sun had burst through rain clouds, in the second act.

Juliet became more forceful and also exhibited a much fuller, more solid-toned voice, while Nurse’s Cockney accent was toned down a notch and Samuel Valentine vastly improved what had been, initially, a rather wooden recitation of Shakespeare’s lines, as if only wanted to prove he could memorize well. Valentine was especially strong in the heartbreakingly poignant scene when Romeo truly believes the drugged Juliet lies dead.

Finally, an overwhelming reason NOT to miss this production lies in two of the most realistically nailed-down, professional portrayals that I’ve ever seen occur on a stage.

One of them is the terror-striking, imprinted-on-the-brain performance of Steven Elder as Lord Capulet, Juliet’s dangerously furious-beyond-reason father; the other is Tim Kanji’s steadily blazing, amazingly plausible and undeniably frightening portrayal of Friar Laurence. It’s true these qualities were present in both acts, but were even more powerful in the second.

Congratulations to Dominic Dromgoole and Tim Hoare, co-directors of this extremely difficult to stage masterpiece. One can, without doubt, believe the recently compiled figures showing that it is largely because of the excellence of its actors and directors, that Shakespeare’s Globe has become one of the most sought-after destinations by those who are traveling throughout the United Kingdom.

“Romeo and Juliet” at the Dock Street Theatre, will be presented by the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. through June 7. For times and tickets, call the festival box office at 579-3100 or online at spoletousa.org.

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