By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

The Atlanta Shakespeare Company (ASC) at the Shakespeare Tavern (officially The New American Shakespeare Tavern) is presenting “Romeo and Juliet” through March 3.

Shakespeare’s timeless story of a tragic generation gap in Verona features real, live teenagers playing the title roles, just as the Bard wrote them.  The rest of the company is adult, professional actors.

ASC Artistic Director Jeffrey Watkins and I share something in common:  Many moons ago we both fell in love with the magnificent 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film, which also featured two beautiful teenagers as the star-crossed lovers.  Mr. Watkins figured it was time for two talented teens to play the roles on the Tavern stage.  It was a wise decision.

You probably know that the Tavern is a one-of-a-kind theatre in Atlanta—and really the nation.  The stage resembles the legendary Globe Theatre of Shakespeare’s time; the sets are simple and essentially remain the same.  The costumes, however, are often lush and extraordinary.  The audience may dine at the Tavern (from basically a British pub menu) and then see the play.  The “groundlings” sit at tables on the main floor.  My favorite seat is in the small balcony, very close to the stage—which is where I sat for “Romeo and Juliet.”

Margaret Flock, a senior at The Lovett School, plays Juliet; Jake West, a senior at North Cobb Christian School, plays Romeo.  Both of these young actors more than rise to the occasion; they give their characters true pathos.  What Romeo and Juliet feel, they feel fully and completely, with nothing held back.  They have the joyful recklessness of youth, with all its power and folly.  These are teenage lovers, and Shakespeare honors them; and then they break our hearts.

Ms. Flock and Mr. West speak their lines with clarity and power; only when they have to shout in desperation does their articulation suffer just a tad, for a moment or two.  But I say bravo to these two young actors, for they carry the weight of the entire play on their backs, and they do it with charm and ease.  By the way, the Tavern was sold out the night I was there; nice to see them flourishing!

For example, when Juliet learns she must deal with Romeo’s banishment and an impending loveless marriage alone, without the aid of her mother or nurse, she grows up in an instant; the girl becomes a woman, and with steel in her voice she says to her nurse:  “Well, thou hast comforted me marvelous much.”  It’s quite a moment.

Of course the young lovers are not alone in the play, and Director Andrew Houchins guides the large and fine cast with a sure hand.  Oh—I’m not sure why the audience remains so visible during the play.

The night I saw the show Jonathan Horne played Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend; Mr. Horne had all the subtlety, irony, and power that this role demands.  The Shakespeare Tavern’s actors are keenly aware that the original Shakespearean actors undoubtedly played a lot straight to the audience (or so we think; none of us were there); usually this is quite effective, but occasionally it seems odd:  When Tiffany Porter, as the Nurse, tells Juliet:  “Thou wast the prettiest babe that e’er I nursed,” Ms. Porter says it to the audience, not Juliet.  Why?

Usually, however, it all works.  I shall not give you the plot; you read it in school, I hope.  Nor can I list the long cast of characters; but I extend my compliments to them, with thanks.  I will, however, quote the Prince of Verona (at the end):  “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, that heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!”

So we return to Mr. West and Ms. Flock, with admiration and best wishes.  “Romeo and Juliet” retains its power and beauty.

For more, visit shakespearetavern.com.

Collin Kelley

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.