Telluride Theatre: Romeo & Juliet, A Production To Die For

Telluride Theatre: Romeo & Juliet, A Production To Die For

Telluride Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park is “Romeo & Juliet.” The action takes place on the Town Park Stage, rain or shine. The production is directed Colin Sullivan and stars Caroline Grace Moore as Romeo and Chambri Swartz as Juliet. “Romeo and Juliet” runs from Saturday, July 16 (Locals’ Night) through Saturday, July 23, 8 p.m. (No show July 20). Tickets are $20 for adults; $12 for students here. Or here. Or call, 970-708-7629. (Suitable for ages 12+.)

Big new stage.

Big, bold production to fill the expanse.

Big stars, one returning to the Telluride stage from Joy – (rhymes with “oy” as in “oy vey”) sey; several Telluride Theatre regulars, including a few who were in the Telluride Rep’s 2002 production; and a few graduates of former director of the Sheridan Arts Foundation’s Young People’s Theatre, the beloved Jen Julia.

Peter, & Gang

Peter and Gang

Supported by a galaxy of hot young talent, members of the Capulet and Montague gangs, the play’s Greek chorus and the production’s rough equivalent of the Sharks and the Jets. (The rumbles were good; snark and dance moves too; drunk scene, best.)

Band Scene, w/ Mercutio,Laurence and Capulets

Band Scene, w/ Mercutio, Laurence and Capulets

All under the canopy of Telluride’s endless night sky.

The message? Hope in the form of a paper coffee cup is crushed under the foot of the local chief of police (the world-weary Chief Escalus, played by a nearly unrecognizable Peter Lundeen, whose strong, steady presence provided ballast).

Tybalt & Capulet

Tybalt & Capulet

(That said, a handshake between the two dads, Buff Hooper as Capulet and Sue Knechtel as Montague, leaves that door opened just a crack – allowing a ray of light to shine through? Hope? Only maybe.)

The Montagues & Benvolio

The Montagues & Benvolio

But hope sprang eternal on opening night of Telluride Theatre’s adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” when a mixed audience of all ages and stages and positions in life seemed rapt and enthused, smiling approval, often laughing out loud at the clowning and double entendres; cringing at cringe-worthy moments: murder and mayhem – and kisses. To a person, we were compelled by the director’s edgy vision and the creativity, exuberance, and high-energy vitality of the overall execution of one of the most popular (read done to death, no pun intended) of Shakespeare’s tragedies. In the end, a burst of wild, heartfelt applause echoed off the backdrop of the mountains.

Who, on either side of the proscenium, could ask for anything more?

Hats doffed to Telluride Theatre’s executive director, actor-director Colin Sullivan, who managed to conceive and execute a fresh, fun vision of the play. His production is carefully thought out, stripped down to a bare-bones essence, literate and passionate, engaging and expressive, with the focus where it should be: on the meaning of the Bard’s immortal words, (which include lots of sexual punning because Elizabethans loved word-play as much as sword-play).

But Colin was not an island. This impressive theatrical hat trick would not have been possible without a little help from his friends in the abundantly talented crew: technical director Erika “EK” Bush, who filled the stage with eye-popping and authentic quintessential street art; assistant director, Cat Lee Covert (missed you girl, especially in the dance numbers); prop master Shoe Eck; costume designer Melissa Harris; and lighting designer Tommy Wince.

“Romeo and Juliet” was first performed at the Bard’s Globe Theatre in London around 1595. Scholars considered the play a lesser tragedy, but audiences rewrote their story, making the saga of star-crossed lovers one of Shakespeare’s most loved, most performed productions on stage and on the silver screen. The wide-ranging interpretations of the tragedy are testimony to its enduring contrasts: old versus young; corrupt versus innocent; experienced versus naive; clueless parents versus idealistic offspring; moralistic complexity and revulsion and uplifting romantic delight; and in this particular case, uptown versus downtown cultures.



Generations of actors have cursed the houses of Montague and Capulet wearing everything from Elizabethan tights to torn denim. The tale has been superimposed onto 1950s gang-ridden New York streets, complete with dueling switchblades, and ’90s Los Angeles, bullets blasting.

What’s left?

What’s left is Colin’s singularly original setting, 1980s Reagan-era New York, a period that underlined the maw between the haves and have-nots, now widened to Grand Canyon scale and underlying the socio-politcal polarization driving the melodrama of the presidential campaign and today’s elections in general. According to Colin’s research, in that decade in New York crack use was on the rise and the murder rate hit almost 2,000 in the early years.

A Capulet or a Montague by any other name is still a killer.

As in Colin’s killer of a show.

In Telluride Theatre’s production, the two poetry-spewing, hormone-laden teens, who defy their elders and disregard their family’s long-standing feud, are played by Caroline Grace Moore as Romeo and Chambri Swartz as Juliet.

Yes, you read correctly, Caroline is Romeo, a girl, because when Colin looked deep into the heart of Shakespeare’s character, he found as much sugar as spice. The message here (and from the headlines and the zeitgeist) is simple: gender today (and in Shakespeare’s day when all the roles were played by boys and men) is fluid; love is blind; and young love especially is knuckleheaded.

Romeo & Benvolio

Caroline is a Telluride Theatre regular. (Thank goodness. ) When last seen, the talented actress played a determined evangelical in “Hands on Hardbody,” long hair in a prim and proper bob (a wig). Talk about shape-shifting: her Romeo is wild (of hair and spirit), impetuous, impassioned, romantic – and lost until she/he finds focus and direction in a callow love.

When last seen, Chambri was a drunken chaperone of a young bride-to-be in Jen’s Julia’s adaptation of “The Drowsy Chaperone.” As Juliet, she is the bride, drunk on love, steely in her resolve and yet fragile, the very essence of Dylan’s “aches like a woman; breaks like a little girl.”

Pawns in a somewhat chilly world? Perhaps. But Colin’s Romeo and his Juliet manage the “for better or for worse part” with aplomb, navigating the minefields of their characters’ emotions with great skill. Emo teens? Yes that, but also metaphors for lost innocence and hope.

Juliet gets some of the play’s best lines, many chockfull of oxymorons such as “O brawling love, O loving hate,” underlining one of the tragedy’s essential dichotomies: love and hate are twins.

Juliet and Nurse

Juliet and Nurse

As Juliet’s nurse, Anna Robinson, like Caroline, a popular  Telluride Theatre regular, nearly steals the show.

Anna is bawdy, sentimental, and just hammy enough as the crass lass with a heart of gold; her New Yawk accent is spot on. Nurse revels in sex (or sex talk at this point in her life) and sympathizes with the young lovers in what is stereotypical behavior for an archetypal character dating back to the Middle Ages. Why the intimacy and empathy? Nurse lost her own child, Susan, the same year Juliet was born.

In the Telluride Rep’s 2002 production of “Romeo and Juliet,” Sue Knechtel played Nurse. In this production, with boundless Protean zeal, this wonderful character actor-comedien morphs seamlessly, seemingly effortlessly into three distinctly different roles, each persona equally convincing and compelling: Sue is Montague, Romeo’s paunchy, pompous, out-of-touch dad; she is Peter, Capulet’s illiterate right-hand man and messenger boy (here her New York accent more “Black Mass” Boston); she also plays the craven apothecary who  – spoiler alert! – dispenses the poison that dispatches Romeo.

Say the name Nathan Scherich and an image of a man being lowered onto the Opera House stage clad only in a bustier, fishnet stockings, and platform heels comes to mind. For his very first acting experience, in 2001, Nathan was Frank’n furter, the lead in the cultish com-dram “Rocky Horror Show” –  that was just before the former teacher left town to perform first in regional theatre, then on Broadway (for years in “Jersey Boys”).

For his long-awaited, much anticipated return to the local stage, Nathan plays Laurence, the psychic incarnation of Shakespeare’s Friar Lawrence, giving a thoughtfully nuanced, understated performance. No need to push if you’ve got it all going on. Welcome back, Nathan.

(The same goes for Nathan’s wife Allie, also a former Broadway actor and teaching artist, now the new artistic director of the Young People’s Theatre. In this production, Allie is Lady Montague and a buffoon named John. We know Allie is a triple threat: actor-dancer-singer. More please.)

The sneering, taunting cynic Mercutio is James Van Hooser, a natural born killer actor.

Wacky and dark, when James goes over the top with obscene talk and aggressive behavior, he has made the right choices for laughs. His Queen Mab speech, generally criticised by scholars as being much too long and entirely irrelevant is not: gods, fairies, (Mab is a fairy queen), all immortals, are as changeable as mountain weather  – and our fate is in their hands. It is also true, as Romeo suspects while listening to the speech, Mercutio is as mad as the Mad Hatter, i.e., both angry and crazy. Crazy good work as always, James.



All falls down following Mercutio’s untimely death; everything that follows is tragic. Literally and metaphorically, comic relief exits the stage with James for the rest of the evening’s business.

Simon Perkovich is central casting for “Benvolio,” which means “good will.” Simon’s role is the kind, gentle and reasoned counterpoint to the ill-tempered, ill-fated, Tybalt, a wild-eyed Evan MacMillan, who plays the part like a predatory cat.

In 2002, Tybalt was Buff Hooper, who grew up to be Juliet’s dear old dad, Capulet.

Talk about mixed messages. Buff as Capulet, played as a Reagan-era success story, a his-way-or-the-highway- kind-of-guy, who simultaneously dotes over his little girl, then threatens to throw Juliet over the balcony or disown her because she plans to disobey orders and not marry Paris. Buff’s partner in crime, Lady Capulet, is an imperious, very convincing Colleen Dunn Saftler, who shows real emotion, even vulnerability, only when events conspire to threaten her self-contained world. In Colleen’s Lady Capulet we find the germ of Shakespeare’s epic bitches, for example, Lady MacBeth.

Paris is Niko Pantovich-Gonzalez, who takes on the role of the Man of Wax, Mr. Perfect, without a trace of guile.

In the run-up to the show, Colin described his production as “one long gloriously slow-motion car wreck we simply can’t look away from.”

We didn’t.

No one could.

Proving once again true love is just murder.

Death Scene

Death Scene

In closing, just one question Colin: is the line “Get the drunk out of here. This is Shakespeare,” in the original folio?

Jes sayin’….


Photos by Clint Viebrock







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