‘Romeo and Juliet’ at Chesapeake Shakespeare set in gritty 1975 Baltimore

This unconventional take on the classic tale of star-crossed lovers smashes expectations with quirky language and a disco beat.

Word on the streets of the hip Verona District of 1975 Baltimore is there’s a show that’s dynamite and out of sight. It’s Romeo and Juliet like you’ve never seen it — definitely not your father’s Shakespeare. Chesapeake Shakespeare Company and Director Gerrad Alex Taylor have funkdafied this classic. It’s a hit with more soul than you can control.

In this Romeo and Juliet, soulful hit songs like “Fight the Power” and “Get Down Tonight” blast from a jukebox. In this Romeo and Juliet, it’s soon after the Vietnam War, and the women’s and gay rights are in dispute. In this Romeo and Juliet, the warring families the Capulets and the Montagues still threaten the love between Romeo and Juliet.

The cast of Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Photo by Kiirstn Pagan Photography

This version uses a shortened script and 1970s interpolations from Shakespeare’s First Quarto, and draws from the history of ’70s Baltimore activists like Victorine and Willie Adams. Taylor, Dramaturg/Text/Vocal Coach Abe Stoll, and the cast added ’70s slang to Shakespeare’s usual puns, double entendres, and oxymorons.

The story can be traced back as far as a 1476 tale by Masuccio Salernitano. Luigi da Porto wrote a version of Salernitano’s tale in 1525, and Matteo Bandello adapted that version in 1554. Then there was Pierre Boaistuau’s 1559 version and Arthur Brooke’s 1562 version. In modern times, there’s been the 1961 film West Side Story and 1968’s Romeo and Juliet.

Many people think Romeo and Juliet is a parody of romantic love. There are parallels with Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play, Pyramus and Thisbe (originally written, as part of the play Metamorphoses, by the Roman poet Ovid.) That play, within A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featured young lovers separated by a wall. Shakespeare described Pyramus and Thisbe’s plot as “The silliest stuff that ever I heard.” Likewise, the audience laughed throughout much of this show.

TOP LEFT: Arielle Moore as Juliet; TOP RIGHT: The cast; ABOVE LEFT: The cast; ABOVE RIGHT: Liam Kinna as Romeo and Arielle Moore as Juliet, in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Photos by Kiirstn Pagan Photography

One of the performances the audience laughed with was Terrance Flemming as Romeo’s friend Mercutio. That character “loves to hear himself talk.” Strutting around like a crazed rooster, Mercutio lectured Romeo about love:

If love be rough with you, be rough with love.
Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down.

Liam Kinna played Romeo and Arielle Moore played Juliet with flawless innocence. The audience adored their performances — sighing, oohing, and laughing. Intimacy Director Sierra Young made their amorous scenes passionate. The audience sometimes laughed in serious spots, for instance laughing at how Kinna pronounced “banished” (BAN-i-shed). Moore really brought the famous line:

Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow.

Taylor drew on his grandmother for the matriarchal and Tyler-Perry-esque Aunty character, the equivalent of Shakespeare’s Nurse character and Rita Moreno’s Anita character in West Side Story. Walking around with her cane and sharp wit, Tamieka Chavis made the audience love her every utterance. She received many cheers.

Tibalt, a Capulet nephew, was hot-headed. Lloyd Ekpe excelled in scenes in which he antagonized the Montagues.

Dawn Thomas Reidy well played the emotional arc of Capulet’s Wife. Chesapeake Shakespeare company member Gregory Burgess as Capulet had an intense scene with Juliet/Moore.

Father Laurence was instrumental in fostering Romeo and Juliet’s infatuation. Jonas Connors-Grey made Father Laurence a confidant but in a way a villain.

Paris was Juliet’s forgotten suitor. Played by Isaiah Mason Harvey, Paris was the odd man out.

I thought it interesting that Montague, played by John Basiulis, was here presented as a police chief. Basiulis was creepy as a shady apothecary (drug dealer).

Kate Forton warmed up the audience with some groovy dance moves to disco music as Romeo’s friend Benvolio. Her and the other players’ dance moves were punched up by Dance & Bmore.

Other notable performances were turned in by Colin Maher as Abram, Daniel Sakamoto Wengel as Balthasar, Charlie Junkins as Sampson, Lauren Erica Jackson as Gregory, and Kainoa Sittman as Peter.

Projection Designer Mark Williams created brilliant projections that served as the Chorus of Romeo and Juliet. One clever projection flashed the title “Romeo and Juliet, 1975” over an aerial backdrop of the city.

Costume Designer Tylar Hinton put the men in vests and jeans and the women in various colorful dresses.  Taylor’s fight choreography was precise and the hand-to-hand combat was exciting. Props Artisan Caitlin Bouxsein provided the vintage jukebox and dangerous-looking switchblades.

“The parallels between America in 2024 and 1975 are blatant,” wrote Taylor, “if you look at our society’s relationship to politics, civil rights, feminism, gay rights, [and] war…what better medicine for our souls than to see how even though the tensions between the Capulets and the Montagues, love grew.”

Founded in 2002, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is instrumental in bringing classical theater to the Baltimore area and beyond. Be sure to catch this production and their next, The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.

Romeo and Juliet plays through May 12, 2024, at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. Adult tickets start at $29; tickets for youths under 25 start at $28. Subscriptions and tickets can be purchased by calling 410-244-8570 or ordering online.

Find the official playlist of the show here.

Romeo and Juliet
By Willam Shakespeare

Romeo: Liam Kinna
Montague: John Basiulis
Benvolio : Kate Forton
Abram: Colin Maher
Balthasar: Daniel Sakamoto Wengel
Juliet: Arielle Moore
Capulet: Gregory Burgess
Capulet’s Wife: Dawn Thomas Reidy
Aunty: Tamieka Chavis
Tibalt: Lloyd Ekpe
Mercutio: Terrance Flemming
Paris: Isaiah Mason Harvey
Sampson: Charlie Junkins
Gregory: Lauren Erica Jackson
Peter: Kainoa Sittman
Father Laurence: Jonas Connors-Grey

Director: Gerrad Alex Taylor
Costume Designer: Tylar Hinton
Props Artisan: Caitlin Bouxsein
Projection Designer: Mark Williams
Fight Choreographer: Gerrad Alex Taylor
Assistant Director: Kathryne Daniels
Dramaturg/Text/Vocal Coach: Abe Stoll
Dance/Movement Choreographer: Dance & Bmore
Intimacy Director: Sierra Young
Sound Designer: Kaydin Hamby
Lighting Designer: Minjoo Kim


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