Find love (and death) on a grassy lawn near you with Classical Actors Ensemble's 'Romeo and Juliet'

Travis Voels

Travis Voels

Once the thermometer hits 70, Minnesota diners run for patios like the restaurants are on fire. Why not treat theater the same way? Classical Actors Ensemble is providing a fine opportunity with an outdoor production of Romeo and Juliet.

Vitamin D isn’t the only reason to see Shakespeare in the park. The open-air, open-admission setting brings the Bard down to earth. Shakespeare sometimes seems like a chore—but not for the bikers, dog-walkers, and picnickers who stumbled upon Romeo and Juliet at the Lake Harriet Rose Garden on Friday night and spontaneously took seats to enjoy the show. Even a boy who looked to be about eight years old sat transfixed for two hours, sharing a bag of popcorn with his grown-ups.

Productions of Romeo and Juliet are like weddings: fancy clothes and elaborate settings are nice bonuses, but the bottom line is that if you believe the couple are truly in love, you’ll enjoy yourself. If you don’t, you won’t. Here, director Joseph Papke has paired an endearingly twitterpated couple in Mike Tober and Emma VanVactor-Lee.

The pair’s chemistry is on lock from their first shared scene, when they meet at a party. VanVactor-Lee leaps up to grab Tober’s face for an enthusiastic, totally teenage liplock. “You kiss by the book,” she giggles in a voice that suggests she might have some other volumes for him to peruse.

Papke doesn’t particularly concern his cast with extracting every ounce of meaning from the text. They know they’ve got to reach those curious onlookers in the back, and thus adopt an accessible, conversational style. It keeps the focus on the plot and on the emotional stakes, which are always clear.

The actors also have fun with audience interactions in a setting where the fourth wall is actually a low rope they can hop across when they need to hide from their rivals, consult with onlookers, or just find someone to hold their wine bottle while they dance. As is the company’s wont, they add zest to the proceedings with performances of pop songs, including a concluding Abbey Road moment that shouldn’t work, but totally does.

Beyond the star-crossed couple, cast standouts include Tyler Stamm, whose charismatic and wild-haired performance suggests what it might have looked like if a young Bill Murray had given the Mercutio role a shot; Alan Tilson, whose exasperated Friar Laurence seems to wish he could be excluded from this narrative; and Jacob Hooper, who gets a lot of comic mileage out of the illiterate Peter.

After an adorably giddy balcony scene, VanVactor-Lee and Tober convincingly turn to lament when their families’ deadly rivalry scotches their hopes of a happy marriage. Their youthful mien lends a particular poignance to the play’s end. They were just a couple of kids who wanted to dance, drink, and make out in the park. So relatable.

Romeo and Juliet
Various locations
Through July 15