BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Romeo and Juliet has come to be the ultimate expression of youth culture, but it's easy to forget how very young Shakespeare's "star-crossed lovers" actually are. In the play, Juliet is 13 or 14, Romeo is 17 or 18.
Like most productions, Freefall Theatre's Romeo + Juliet (trendy punctuation added by the company) casts the protagonists with adult actors, Jesse LeNoir, 28, and Sarah McAvoy, 24, but both of them look young.
"I think they're the perfect kind of actors to play these two roles," director Eric Davis said last week. "They both look almost believably the age of the characters. Sarah is a woman, of course, but she also has the ability to look like a little girl, and that brings out certain themes and ideas in the play that a more mature looking Juliet just can't bring out. I think that complicates things in a very interesting way."
LeNoir likens the impulsive Romeo to "a hummingbird in an ADD kind of way," he said. "He's not a thinking man, he's just emotionally driven. So I've tried to turn off my brain and approach the character through gut reactions and immediate response to stimulus around me. But I think his emotional depth and capacity for love is huge. And he's always trying to fill that up."
McAvoy, who was very convincing last year as a 14-year-old in the American Stage production of August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, sees Juliet as being quite different from Romeo, more willful and controlling. But it takes the romantic Montague swain to open her up.
"When you first meet Juliet, she's like a porcelain doll in a box, really cute, and nobody is allowed to touch," she said. "Then Romeo takes her out of the box and she's like a new woman and she doesn't know what to do with all this space in her life."
In Davis' conception of the play, the feuding Montagues and Capulets are from the same aristocratic class in Verona, though perhaps Juliet's clan is more nouveau riche.
"There is some textual support for the idea that the way these families express their station and their wealth is very different but that they are equal," he said. "The Capulets flaunt their money, while the Montagues have had their wealth longer and are more subdued in how they express it."
Some stagings have given a political interpretation to Romeo and Juliet, with, for example, the Montagues as Israelis, the Capulets as Palestinians. West Side Story sets the story amid a gang war between Puerto Rican and white teenagers.
"Our production is more about taking Shakespeare's play and nothing else," McAvoy said. "There is no other context to the play. We have created a very intimate world, and that's it."
With a cast of only eight, all the actors, except McAvoy and LeNoir, play multiple roles in Freefall's Romeo + Juliet. "There is significance to all of the doublings," Davis said. "For instance, Roxanne Fay plays the Friar and the Nurse, so she takes on the roles of both of the mentors. I think searching for those threads between the characters will be an interesting thing for the audience to enjoy."
In an unorthodox piece of casting, a woman, Jennifer Christa Palmer, is playing Tybalt, the Capulets' master duellist. Combat director Blake Braswell thinks she is perfect for the role.
"She is one of the best sword fighters in the Southeast," Braswell said. "Those boys are running for their lives when she goes after them."
Indeed, Palmer, who played Helena in the Freefall production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, is right at home with a rapier and dagger. She toured the country for six years in a comedy sword-fighting show called To the Hilt. She has played a sword-fighting girl pirate at Walt Disney World.
LeNoir, who also has worked at Disney, had a brush with celebrity in 2010 when he was a contestant on Project Runway, the reality show about fashion designers.
"I learned how to sew while learning acting, because you have to work in a costume shop to make theater go," he said. "It was my hobby on the side. When I banged my head against the wall as an actor, I'd flop over to the other side and make a pair of pants."
Nowadays, LeNoir, who got his theater training at the University of Central Florida, is more interested in acting than fashion design. "Acting, I've found, is my fuller passion," he said. "And the business of acting, I don't mind. The business of fashion is terrible."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.