SALEM — On a warm afternoon in sunny Salem, Utah, my wife and I sat on the grass of the small town’s community center awaiting a performance by the Grassroots Shakespeare Company. Founded in 2009, this bijou, non-profit organization has staged productions in a unique style across the state of Utah. The performance of Romeo and Juliet had no director, designer, or crew of any sort—only five performers who prepared the entire 60-minute production in just two weeks.
The team of Shakespearean players used their generic set of eight wooden pillars and bright curtains, simple props, and thoughtful costumes (with the Montagues in red and the Capulets in blue) to perform this classic story of starstruck lovers in a way I have never before seen. With one of the five individuals being the musician for the tragic romance, the remaining four thespians played the parts of, what I counted, thirteen unique characters; and they did remarkable work tackling this feat.
Let me begin with the musician. Gary Argyle, equipped with his electric guitar and a small set of other instruments used for sound effects, set the tone for each scene in the production (and, in some cases, set the mood). The tunes were mostly optimistic, on occasion grim, and, more than once, distinctly romantic. No matter how well a person understood the Old English of the centuries-old script, the music Argyle played clued us in as to what was happening in any particular portion of the play. Furthermore, Argyle added sound effects at just the right moments to enhance the imaginative performance. When Romeo and Juliet first met and the sparks seemed to fly, the tinkle of a bell could be heard. When Romeo ran behind the curtains onstage in a haste, Friar Lawrence warning him not to trip, the musician knocked over a gong that made the perfect crashing sound that incited bellowing laughter from theatergoers. Five stars to the Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s one-man band, Gary Argyle.
The performer who introduced the play was Steven Pond, who also depicted the characters of the Chorus, Mercutio, Capulet, Balthasar, and Friar Lawrence. In addition to being able to portray each character completely distinctly, as each of the actors was able to do, Pond seemed to be the most able to solicit audience interaction. He would turn to the crowd when asking a question and wait for an answer. Pond’s hilarious gestures and witty remarks made him easy to love, especially in his role as Friar Lawrence; he befriended the spectators just as he displayed true care and friendship for Romeo and Juliet.
Juliet was played by Amber Dodge, who also played Benvolio. Her two prominent roles were members of families at odds with each other, and a simple wardrobe change from a blue dress fit for a young princess to a red vest, pants, and a beanie seemed to completely transform her. I never questioned which character she was playing. I especially enjoyed Dodge as Juliet, able to recite some of Shakespeare’s most beloved lines while simultaneously convincing the audience that she was a thirteen-year-old girl who was madly in love. Dodge moved gracefully across the stage, but then would add giggles and nearly squeal in excitement as she bore her heart out for her forbidden lover. This juxtaposition showed that Dodge has the poise of a talented Elizabethan actress who also understands how a young girl in love might actually feel.
Juliet’s lover was played by Brandon Bills, who was the perfect Romeo. He knew he was dashing, often running his hands through his hair, but always remained humble and never hesitated to compliment his fair Juliet. After Romeo’s first kiss with Juliet, Romeo got all the oohs and ahhs with the famous line, “give me my sin again,” and going in for a second smooch. Bills, like Dodge, was able to show a wide range of emotions as a young, tragic lover, as both of their roles require in this tragic tale. His devastating choice to reach out to the Apothecary convinced us of his undying devotion to his lover, as he poignantly expressed in his final soliloquy.
Bills also played Paris and Prince Escalus—Paris, in Bills’s interpretation, was a nerdy boy who didn’t seem to be quite the right type for Juliet, and the Prince was as princely as they come, adorned with a crown and mantle. I was never unimpressed by the incredibly swift costume changes required of Bills, as it seemed that he would exit the stage and enter through the same curtains as a completely different character in the blink of an eye.
Last, but certainly not least, was Kailey Azure Green, who played the fierce Tybalt, the shady Apothecary, and the sweet, elderly Nurse. Again, as with each of the talented performers, Green’s ability to seamlessly transition from role to role was astounding. Her bubbly personality was especially evident in her role as Juliet’s Nurse, walking with a hunched waddle in her brimmed hat and shawl. At one point during the production, when Romeo was hiding near Juliet’s room while Mercutio was shouting in search of him through the crowd, Green would periodically pop out from behind the curtains with a suspicious look on her face, increasing the hilarity of the situation.
Before attending Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s Romeo and Juliet, prepare to participate in this upbeat, hilarious rendition of the iconic Shakespearean romance. The performers invite the audience to actively answer questions, cheer and hiss when appropriate, and help the story along. The cast nearly demanded uproarious laughter with their quips and gestures and dances, and they helped me use my imagination more than I have in a very long time. Aside from the tragic end (no spoilers), I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.