CEDAR CITY — As the ever-patient Benvolio spoke the final words, “There never was a story of more woe that this of Juliet and her Romeo,” I could not help but notice the forty-something-year-old man next to me surreptitiously wiping some tears from his eyes. If that is not the mark of a successful production of Romeo and Juliet, I do not know what is. Directed by Betsy Mugavero (who had her own turn as Juliet at the Festival in 2017), this production is an excellent welcome mat to any Shakespeare newcomer.

Show closes September 8, 2023.

Bill Black‘s costumes, with long robes for the rival fathers, wimpled headdresses for their wives, and tight pants and slashed doublets for the young men, reflect all the traditional images that come to mind at the words “Shakespeare play.” Jo Winiarski‘s simple but elegant set is perfectly serviceable to the show’s needs, and all the productions elements come together smoothly to bring the world’s most famous tragic couple to their untimely end. For my taste, the first half of the production was a bit slow going. Yet, I acknowledge that the advantage to this simplicity for many audience members is that the focus is wholly given over to the glories of the text itself and establishes the critical character relationships that are pulled apart in the second half.

The plot is structured so that the action really kicks off with the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt.  From there on, the characters find their urgency and the scene pacing quickens. While the acting performances are generally strong across the cast, there are a few stand outs. Naiya Vanessa McCalla as Juliet and Ty Fanning as Romeo both exhibit masterful text work, and the chemistry generated by their beautiful poetry, innocent passion, and gorgeous faces left many in the audience grinning like fools from the moment their palms touched. So to, the audience was deeply invested in the relationships of care, compassion and protection expressed for these young lovers by their adult confidents, Friar Lawrence (played by Nathan Hosner) and Juliet’s Nurse (played by Alex Keiper). I found I was particularly moved by the deep pain and love expressed for Romeo and Juliet by Hosner and Keiper, as their characters attempted to support and talk down each of the young lovers from the threat of ending their own lives.

Ty Fanning (left) as Romeo, Nathan Hosner as Friar Lawrence, and Naiya Vanessa McCalla as Juliet in the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 2023 production of Romeo and Juliet. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespeare Festival 2023.)

Act 4, which centers on Juliet’s plan to escape the (would-be second) marriage her parents have arranged for her, features Tim Fullerton and Cassandra Bissell as Lord and Lady Capulet, respectively. The spectrum of fury and love expressed by these two as they try to parent a rebellious but beloved child, while also balancing social affairs and other griefs will be relatable to any modern parent. Tears were shed around the theater during the scene where these parents find Juliet’s “dead” body. In this moment, Mugavaro uses the impactful technique of having all the actors speak their lines at once as each sinks into their own grief. This overlapping text adds to the chaos and sorrow of that moment, which resolves beautifully a few minutes later as Kepier sings a song over Juliet’s body.

That scene, along with a few other innovative flashes, hint at a more robust production that Mugavero left lurking beneath the one that made it to the stage. I would have liked to see more use of direct address and audience interaction, like when the Nurse curses Mercutio. Likewise, the flash of a gory ghost that Juliet conjures in a moment of dread shows the potential to add innovative stagecraft to Shakespeare’s text. But even without the hints of what might have been, the sum of the parts of this production is more than enough to satisfy.

As a side note, I saw Romeo and Juliet on Independence Day. A day or so before, the Festival surprised the community by offering a $4 flash ticket sale for performances that day. Looking around during the performance, it was a pleasure to see that the Engelstad welcomed many families of all ages into the house. During intermission, I smiled to overhear a teenage granddaughter and grandfather (who were not very familiar with Shakespeare) chatting about the show, and my seat neighbors — who had not been planning to attend that night — mentioned on how glad they were to be in the audience. I was able to share with them my opinion about how excellent the Festival’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is this year, and they seemed excited to return. I love to see a one of Utah’s largest theatre companies offering greater accessibility for new and local audiences. Judging by the responses of first-time attendees and long-time fans, this production of Romeo and Juliet is, to paraphrase Benvolio, a right fair mark, and soon a hit.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival production of Romeo and Juliet plays at 8 PM on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays through September 9 in the outdoor Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Southern Utah University. Tickets are $15-85. For more information, visit bard.org.

This review is generously supported by a grant from the Utah Division of Arts and Museums.