Jonathan Horne and Mary Alice Acker in Romeo & Juliet.
Jonathan Horne and Jennifer Alice Acker in Romeo & Juliet.

By Manning Harris

For the first time in its 23-year history Georgia Ensemble Theatre is presenting a Shakespearean play, and it’s a beautiful production of “Romeo and Juliet,” running through Nov. 22.

Director David Crowe calls it “a very respectful adaptation” in Encore Atlanta, and that it is; certain aspects are “reimagined” a bit, but not to worry—the words are all Shakespeare’s, the story is intact, and a very fine cast performs the legendary love story.

The eminent Shakespearean scholar Harold Bloom says that “Romeo and Juliet” is “unmatched in Shakespeare and in the world’s literature as a vision of uncompromising mutual love that perishes of its own idealism and intensity.”
Interestingly, British critic and essayist William Hazlitt wrote that the playwright “has founded the passion of the two lovers not in the pleasures they had experienced, but on all the pleasures they had not experienced.” Remember (for I’m sure we all know the story), young Romeo and Juliet have only one night of wedded bliss together.

Before that night Juliet says, “And yet I wish but for the thing I have. My bounty is as boundless as the sea, my love as deep; the more I give to thee the more I have, for both are infinite.” These few sublime lines have been called an epiphany in the religion of love; the entire play rests on their power and undiluted passion.

“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene” live the wealthy Capulets, whose lovely daughter Juliet (Jennifer Alice Acker) stands ready to be married. Her parents, Lord and Lady Capulet (Kevin Stillwell and Megan McFarland) urge her to consider Count Paris (Daniel Parvis), a young nobleman. However, Juliet is in no rush.

The Capulets give a masked ball which Romeo (Jonathan Horne), young scion of the house of Montague, attends. He is uninvited, because the two families have a serious, long-standing feud between them. Juliet’s Nurse (Heidi Cline McKerley) tells Romeo that “he that can lay hold of her shall have the chinks.”

But Romeo is already smitten: “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright.” Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (Brandon Partrick) has observed Romeo and is not pleased by his presence. Lord Capulet tells Tybalt to cool down (if only Capulet had taken his own advice later).

Romeo and Juliet’s mutual attraction is instant and intense and only grows in passion and love until the end of the play. You know the story.

But through the genius of Shakespeare, the talent of the actors, and the magic of theatre, we follow the action as if for the first time, thrilling to the passion, poetry, love, and tragedy—hoping against hope that this time Shakespeare will change the ending!

Enormous credit must be given to the two leads. Jonathan Horne as Romeo brings an earnestness, a vulnerability, a strength and a joy in finding his first real love that make his tears at the tragic ending totally heartbreaking. Mr. Horne also has an easy, assured mastery of the Shakespearean language.

Jennifer Alice Acker’s Juliet is strong as Juliet must be: not only to follow Friar Lawrence’s (a fine Steve Hudson) bold, dangerous plan to give the young couple their freedom; but when even the Nurse callously bids her marry Paris and forget Romeo, the girl becomes a woman and says, steel in her voice, “Well, thou hast comforted me marvelous much.” Perhaps Ms. Acker is a bit too strong too soon; for Juliet is but a girl at the beginning.

The strongest aspect of GA Ensemble’s “Romeo” is the casting. Space does not permit me to say as much as I’d like about this cast, but they’re quite marvelous: Chris Rushing (Mercutio—fine Queen Mab speech), Ms. McKerley’s amusing Nurse, Kevin Stillwell and Megan McFarley (Lord and Lady Capulet), Robert Wayne and Kerrie Hansen Doty (Lord and Lady Montague), Brandon Partrick (a fiery Tybalt), Brad Brinkley (the Prince), Kirill Sheynerman (Benvolio), Allan Edwards’ rather sepulchral Chorus, Max Flick, and Maggie Birgel.

Don’t look for a traditional balcony scene; scenic designer Leslie Taylor and director Crowe have invented a variation, shall we say. But Romeo still leaps up to steal a kiss from Juliet. And there is a great moment in Act II where Romeo and Juliet are side by side, talking simultaneously. It works.

You know the play is supremely romantic, beautiful to look at and listen to, and will likely break your heart yet again. What more can one ask for?

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Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.