LAYTON — Nestled in the trees, tucked away in a corner of the Layton Commons Park, is the Ed Kenley Amphitheater, a beautiful performance space that plays host to a variety of artistic genres and performances throughout the summer months. As part of their Summer Nights with the Stars season, the Davis Arts Council has initiated the Shakespeare in the Park program, now in its second year, as a welcome alternative to the spate of musical theatre offerings produced by every municipality in Davis County each summer. This year’s selection of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Mark Fossen, is a gem that belies the belief that community theatre can’t handle Shakespeare. The show is beautiful to look at, easy to follow, and engaging in almost every way.
Mark Fossen has gathered an excellent cast of seasoned actors and designers; the result is a Romeo and Juliet of which Davis County can be proud. Starting with the cast, while all excellent, the standouts were April Fossen as the Nurse, Daniel Beecher as Friar Lawrence, and Nathan Krishnan as Romeo. April Fossen plumbed her every line for the rampant humor and wit, as well as giving the sad scenes a humanity and realness that brought tears to my eyes. Her loving and teasing relationship with Juliet was especially clear and endearing. I never tired of watching her on stage. Beecher created a Friar who was at once compassionate, wily, and fallible. His distress at the end when discovering that his plotting had led to tragedy instead of the “happily ever after” he had imagined would be the result made him a sympathetic, human character. His intentions were clearly good; his methods disastrous.
Krishnan is a handsome, passionate, fiery Romeo, at first coming across as flighty and fickle in so abruptly switching his affections from the fair Rosalind to Juliet, but evolving into a man steadfast in his (questionably rapid) devotion to his lady love. Krishnan held nothing back, making me hope for his conflicts to somehow, somewhere be resolved, even though I knew how this story ends. He and his Juliet (played by Sarah Danielle Young) were a romantic pair I wanted to root for. They were believable and absolutely committed to each other. But Young came across as very, well, young. Her Juliet was lovely and girlish and sweet, if a tad one-dimensional. Her voice has a slight shrillness to it which on occasion made her seem petulant, but then again, perhaps that is in keeping with a teenaged heroine who is fighting for her right to make her own choices? Young’s most impressive moments came right before her faked death when she is facing her fears regarding the potion Friar Lawrence gave her, whether she can trust him, and—more importantly—whether she will ever see Romeo again. The blocking is simple and strong, allowing me to focus completely on her internal conflict.
Another actor who deserves mention is JJ Peeler, cast unconventionally as a female Mercutio, best friend and partner-in-crime to Romeo, until he abruptly abandons her for the fair Juliet. Peeler certainly makes bold choices in her Mercutio, and seemed fearless in her taunting, mocking and sardonic wit. The result was interesting, but it was still a hard sell. Peeler comes across as trying too hard, and doesn’t spend enough time finding the depths and different levels in this character and his/her complicated relationship with Romeo. Ultimately Mercutio just seems jealous and petulant.
Speaking of Mercutio leads, obviously, to speaking of sword fighting. The fight choreograpy by Brad Schroeder was excellent. There are several lengthy fight scenes, yet none of them seemed to be repeats of earlier duels. Each was interesting to watch. The sword play was clearly used to advance the story, depicting the tensions between the Capulets and Montagues, and how these conflicts were allowed to escalate to such a disastrous level. The most intriguing was the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio. Schroeder was not afraid to use the fact that Mercutio was a woman to bring a different aspect to their hatred and taunting than is typically seen with a male Mercutio. Tybalt’s physical intimidation and Mercutio’s feigned tears as well as a stolen, mocking, bitter kiss were used to great effect here. My favorite fight image, however, was during the battle between Romeo and Paris at the Capulet family crypt. Juliet’s (drugged and seemingly dead) body is at center stage, while the fight ranged across the ramps behind her. The juxtaposition of the two was intriguing.
The unit set design by Dennis Ferrin was simple and elegant. The semicircular set of ramps, bordered on both sides by balconies were utilitarian and effective. The scenes moved seamlessly from ballroom, to garden, to churchyard, to crypt simply by moving two benches. The lighting design by Don Wilhelm was beautiful, effectively designating time of day and setting changes as well, facilitating smooth transitions from place to place. The motion of the action was fluid and easy. Without being specific to time and place, the setting communicated a hot, dry climate. The costumes designed by Phillip R Lowe reinforced this idea of an arid land. Actors were all dressed in variations of white, gauzy tunics, blouses, skirts, robes and loose fitting pants, with a splash of color to help differentiate the various families and factions of the city. Capulets were in accents blues and greens, Montagues wore reds, browns and rust hues, and the governing body wore yellows and golds. The color choices made it easy for my eight-year-old theater companion to keep track of the different sides of the story, which in turn increased her enjoyment of the play overall.
Davis Arts Council has created a beautiful production of a classic, timeless masterpiece. Many theatre lovers would enjoy this play, especially those who might be a wee bit weary of the never-ending parade of summer musicals. Take advantage of this excellent production and go see it. But go quickly. This production closes Monday.