The star of the student-alumni production of Romeo and Juliet at Howard Community College is the director, MaryBeth Wise. She may not have the Royal Shakespeare Company to work with - classical actors trained in movement, dance, fencing and the speaking of blank verse - but she has turned out a lively and effective show.
The great thing about Shakespeare is his universality. His situations and characters can be made relevant to almost any audience in any age. Romeo and Juliet depicts teen-age love in all its headstrong intensity - something we've all experienced or at least witnessed. And it examines a phenomenon that dominates the American consciousness just now: the irrational hatred of one group of people for another.
In the play, the groups are feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets, in a make-believe Renaissance Italy. The basic story is well known (ever see West Side Story?) and doesn't need repeating.
Shakespeare's dialogue, thick with words, idioms and allusions that are long gone from the language, can baffle modern ears. Wise has made sure her actors know what their lines mean, and she has used their American speech, inflections and gestures to put the dialogue across to an American audience. (There is a lot of humor in Romeo and Juliet, especially in the first half, and it is pleasant to be able to enjoy it.)
Heading a well-drilled and hardworking cast are Adam Grabau and Jessica Ball, who play the star-crossed lovers with youthful charm. Romeo says his friend Mercutio "loves to hear himself talk," and Michael Avolio gives a convincing portrait of the kind of man who insists on entertaining the people around him nonstop.
Following the lead of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has lately presented a Hamlet played by Fiona Shaw, Wise has cast women in three male roles. The Prince is played by Phoenix Baker, Lord Montague's lines are spoken by Lady Montague (Phyllis Stanley) and Friar John becomes Sister John (Grace Anastasiadis).
Also appearing are Michael Wood (Benvolio), Mike Coleman (Tybalt), Bill Stanley (Friar Lawrence), Laura Couvillion (Nurse), Mario Chery (Paris), Roger MacDonald (Lord Capulet), Susan Shulman Porter (Lady Capulet) and George Burgtorf (Peter).
The costumes by Denise Umland are a seemingly casual mix of the contemporary and the vaguely archaic.
David Cunningham's dreamlike set is made up of ambiguous shapes and textures, painted in muted earth colors that evoke Italian Renaissance paintings.
Aided by some cuts in the script, the production moves swiftly (perhaps too swiftly - some of the actors tend to gabble their lines). But the spectator is always conscious of Wise's firm directorial hand.
Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, presents a Student-Alumni Arts production of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" through Sunday in the college's Theater Outback. Show times: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday. Reservations: 410-772-4900.