‘Romeo & Juliet’ will break your heart

The CSUN theatre department’s latest production of “Romeo & Juliet,” directed by Shad Willingham, has sold out for its entire run, and for good reason.

Their energetic staging of the classic love story breathes fresh life into the tragic tale. When the audience first enters the 124 seat Experimental Theatre at the Valley Performing Arts Center, they are greeted with the expected, traditional-looking set. A two-story building, complete with balcony and tall archways sits at the back of the stage. Wrought iron gates can be seen on one side, vines growing up along the sides. The audience is even greeted by the strains of classical guitar music as they pick out the best seat in the gallery.

This classic repose is broken when the lights go down and the sounds of radio static cuts through any lingering conversation. Someone is searching for a station. As they tune the dial back and forth, 50s pop songs and references to Sputnik are heard between an announcer’s voice reading the familiar prologue. “Two houses, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona…”

As the first scene unfolds, it becomes clear that Juliet and her Romeo will fall in love among the post-war prosperity of the 1950s “somewhere in America” as the program states.

Swords are replaced with spades and tennis rackets as the working-class Montagues bite their thumbs at the preppy Capulets. Will Potter’s Romeo is an ebullient young man, simply in love with love. Potter gives the audience a Romeo they can relate to as he falls out of love with poor old Rosalind and desperately in love with the fair Juliet. He deftly avoids the trap of overblown self-involvement and takes the audience along with him on his journey from the highest peaks of ardor, to the suicidal depths of loss.

Megan Berndt portrays a wide-eyed Juliet whose sheer joy seems too much to contain. Her honest portrayal of a girl’s first love reminds the audience of the excitement of their own youthful romances. Her unfettered elation in Act I makes the despair and utter heartbreak of Act II that much more powerful.

Burklee Woods walks off with entire scenes with his boisterous, savagely irreverent yet fiercely loyal Mercutio. The energy he brings to every moment on stage is felt all the more after his sudden demise at the end of Act I.

Tamee Seidling makes Juliet’s Nurse both amusing and gut-wrenchingly sympathetic while Friar Lawrence, as portrayed by Gabe Orendain, brings compassion and levity to the proceedings.

It’s hard to follow up all the passion and sudden tragedy of the fast-paced first act of “Romeo and Juliet” with the much darker and sometimes laborious second act. While some of the weeping and wailing did seem to drag at times, Willingham made creative use of scipt editing and staging to keep things moving.

In one instance he cuts between Juliet’s discovery of her cousin Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s breakdown at Father Lawrence’s cell, lighting each scene in turn as the dialogue went back and forth between the two.

Daniel Mahler’s costume design was a lesson in 1950s fashion. His talents especially shone during the masquerade ball where the two lovers meet for the first time. Cast members appeared dressed as Cinderella, Superman and even Marilyn Monroe from “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”, big pink bow and all.

Mark Svastics’ lighting design took the audience from the dawn light of the lovers’ marriage bed to the cold grey of their tomb with artful precision.

Sound design by Daniel Tator provided realistic ambiance for everything from a rollicking party to the echos of the graveyard.

This was a production that truly embraced the energy and excitement of young love and the tragic despair of heartbreak.