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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Swathed in moonlight, American Players Theatre's Romeo and Juliet enchants with passion, humor and tragedy
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Romeo and Juliet: Passion, tragedy, suspense.
Credit:Carissa Dixon

While pop culture is currently enthralled with a pair of young, doomed lovers in The Fault in Our Stars, the hearts of theatergoers around the world have remained true to William Shakespeare's tragic couple for more than 400 years. The new American Players Theatre production of Romeo and Juliet (through Oct. 4) is proof that audiences will care about this couple's story for years to come as well.

Violence and tension are in the air in Verona, and two fractious families, the Montagues and Capulets, have been warned by the prince to cease their fighting. When the young Romeo Montague encounters Juliet Capulet at a dance hosted by her father, the two are instantly drawn together and embark on a combustible love affair. Despite ominous visions delivered to each of them and the awareness that their love is forbidden, the two enter a secret marriage.

That same day Juliet's cousin, Tybalt, and Romeo’s best friend, Mercutio, brawl. Romeo is pulled into the fight, with tragic results for all. He is then banished and Juliet, desperate to escape a hastily arranged marriage to Paris, takes desperate measures to be reunited with her love. Terrible timing, missed messages and hasty reactions make this a true "tale of woe."

The very names Romeo and Juliet have become shorthand for passion and tragedy. Over the course of the production, we get passion and tragedy in spades, but we also get some deeply funny scenes and taut excitement. When the two first spy each other at the Capulets' party, the other partygoers freeze as the couples swirl in motion. We know, as they do, that nothing else matters. Juliet descends a staircase, long hair and gown trailing behind her, and Romeo swiftly crosses the stage to get a better view.

Director James DeVita is wise to use moments like this to underscore the electricity between the title characters. Minutes later when they dance and kiss, first haltingly and then with abandon, we can't look away.

Christopher Sheard is a pale, slight Romeo, but we see how his love for Juliet transforms him from a gloomy youth moping about his crush on Rosaline into a passionate man. It's as though he needed this love to fully become himself. Sheard conjures romantic fervor, and because we've learned that he is kinder and more thoughtful than his peers, we are in his corner.

Melisa Pereyra's Juliet is a beguiling beauty who conveys a sweet but spirited nature. Pereyra is absolutely luminous under the moonlight in the Up-the-Hill Theatre, with her porcelain skin, open expression and dark curls tumbling down. (I'll admit being worried about those curls actually tumbling as her wig became a little loose.) On Saturday night, her accent was a bit inconsistent. It seemed to get more pronounced as the night progressed. She does many things right, though, like powerfully flinging her arms open to draw in Romeo in front of her bed, knowing that the violence of the day has doomed them.

When the two are together, we root for them and hang on their words since we know they have such a short time together. Everything is accelerated between them, so the impetuousness, impatience and narcissism that can accompany young love are even more apparent.

Colleen Madden is a treasure as Juliet's nurse. Sassy and candid, she is the first to cherish Juliet so dearly and is closer to her than her parents (Tracy Michelle Arnold and James Ridge). She has much to do (reminiscing, nurturing, relaying messages), and all of it reveals her devotion to Juliet. With her light touch, Madden allows us to laugh and scheme along with her and ultimately mourn with her.

Another standout in the cast is Nate Burger as Mercutio, a charmer whose swagger and swift tongue are more engaging than off-putting. Burger's charisma made me want to see and hear more of him. I was under his spell as he plied Romeo with the tale of Queen Mab's fairy realm. It makes perfect sense that Romeo is undone by this friend's death.

APT consistently delivers topnotch performances, beautifully designed and constructed sets and costumes, and a dedicated attention to detail that permeates every aspect of the productions. There are also things about APT that are uncertain, which can add to the excitement and gamble of seeing live theater outdoors: a boisterous whippoorwill that seemed to be getting cues from sound designer Josh Schmidt, bats and birds circling overhead as the actors' swords clashed, and the threat of rain, which fell with eerie timing late in Act II. Most audience members were prepared, and the cast, especially James Ridge in the midst of a wrenching scene, proceeded with impressive professionalism. There is a sense that the work being done on the stage is urgent and too important to let some rain get in the way of a story that's still riveting in 2014, even though we know how it ends.

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