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Jenny Graham / OSFMercutio (Sara Bruner, left) and Tybalt (Derek Garza, right) battle, cheered on by their friends and kin (ensemble), as Romeo (William Thomas Hodgson, center) hopes to stop the fight in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of "Romeo and Juliet."

Theater review: A 'Romeo and Juliet' well-worth loving

I'd love to be able to refrain from drawing obvious comparisons that emerge when thinking about the idiocy of the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues and how such divisive prides are alive and well in contemporary America, but it's impossible to ignore.

In an era that brings us toddlers in cages, the feudal posturing of Italian princelings seems almost tame, but the outcome of such posturing is what makes for enduring tragedy. The popularity of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," and Oregon Shakespeare Festival's most recent, sparkling production, should serve as another reminder as to how far a clown with a sword is willing to go to defend their own special, over-hyped idea of right and wrong.

With all the more contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare currently on deck at OSF, it's lovely to see a gorgeously costumed, sparsely set, elegant production, as is the current incarnation of this tale of two star-cross'd lovers. The play is as popular at the festival as it is everywhere else, this being the fourth production of the 21st century. It played to a packed house with a diverse crowd, at least in terms of age.

A classic set design by Efren Delgadillo Jr. makes for a discreet backdrop to some wonderful acting, with William Thomas Hodgson as Romeo and Emily Ota as Juliet. Director Damaso Rodriguez speaks of being in theater in search of the "electric moment," and he delivers many such moments with the deft hand one might expect from the artistic director of the Artists Repertory Theatre.

The play opens with live cello as a clutch of hooded thespians proceed to the main stage in monophonic chant. The moment is exquisite, setting the tone for the combined dynamic of beauty and tragedy that marks the telling of the tale.

Both Hodgson and Ota are excellent. Almost gleeful in their professionalism, they chomp down on some of the most beloved lines of the canon. As Tybalt, Derek Garza is splendid, mirroring the over-reactive adolescent attitude that has so often passed for leadership. Robin Goodrin Nordli is fabulous as the classically comical Nurse to Juliet, put upon and scheming in the best tradition of the play.

Another notable performance comes from Monique Holt. Ms. Holt — in addition to being an Asian actor — is also deaf, and in her own words she often faces a "double typecast" as a working actor. Her performance as Lady Capulet is refreshing and beautifully rendered. Christiana Clark, who can always be relied upon to fill the stage with her forceful presence, is appropriately potent as Prince Escalus, the ruler of Verona.

It would be unfair to suggest that any one actor carries a play, and that's not entirely the case here, with so much talent in the ensemble. But it must be said that many of those special "electric moments" of which the director speaks come to the stage during this production in the form of Sara Bruner, playing Mercutio.

It is an uncommon pleasure when an actor and a part collide with so potent an outcome as Bruner does with Mercutio. Bruner is legitimately thrilling to watch, raising the bar onstage as a performer and bringing the audience into the action with a particular mastery of her craft that is hard to describe, but is evident when witnessed. Bruner is at the height of her powers here, and her time on stage is a master class in how an artist can put in all of the hard work and refine every physical moment and eloquent line — then let it all go and execute a moving and natural performance. Magniloquent and grandiose, Mercutio is also deeply loyal and unshakably noble. Bruner roots her athletic and dizzying interpretation of Romeo's beloved friend in an authoritative professionalism that must be earned and that cannot be faked.

"Romeo and Juliet" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a romantic, sophisticated evening under the stars at the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. It's a great, familiar starting point to the second tranche of the 2018 season, and — if attended with patient ears — will give much reward.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

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