The Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival may have the most beautiful venue in the business. The sandy amphitheater sits next to the lake. At showtime, the sun is setting in the west, and the evening air is fresh and cool.
Then the play begins. And before a single word is spoken, your senses are jarred by rising alarms from some unseen disaster.
This unsettling, side-by-side duality – tremendous beauty alongside anxiety and crisis – is an apt set-up for the play itself.
“Romeo and Juliet” begins as bawdy comedy. The teenage Romeo and his rowdy mates boast about girls and sex, then recklessly crash a high society party in disguise.
But at that fateful party, Romeo falls for Juliet at first sight – only later does he realize that her father is his father’s mortal enemy. The lusty party boy becomes a swooning lover, risking everything to see her again.
Juliet: The orchard walls are high and hard to climb, and the place death, considering who thou art, if any of my kinsmen find thee here.
Romeo: With love’s light wings did I o’erperch these walls. Their stony limits cannot hold love out. What love can do, that dares does love attempt. Therefore thy kinsmen are no stop to me.
Juliet: If they do see thee, they will MURDER thee. (Audience laughter).
This is, of course, the balcony scene, played here for warmth and humor, with moonlight twinkling off the lake. Actors Matt Schwader and Hillary Clemens are recent newlyweds to boot; they bring a sweet glow to their parts as Romeo and Juliet.
But Shakespeare likes gut-grabbing contrasts. After Romeo secretly marries Juliet, he watches in horror as Juliet’s cousin Tybalt -- a Blackshirt assassin in this production – slaughters Romeo’s best friend Mercutio in the street. Romeo boils over, and impulsively challenges Tybalt to a duel.
Romeo: Now Tybalt! Take that villain back again that late thou gavest me, for Mercutio’s soul is but a little way above our heads, Staying for thine to keep him company! Either thou or I, or both, must go with him! This shall determine that! (Clashing swords, music).
The newlywed becomes a killer. The young couple’s desperate actions as their lives spin out of control are heartbreaking. It all happens so fast, and it’s shocking, even though you know the ending – everybody does.