Shakespeare duels with flintlock pistols in an exciting new Romeo and Juliet; House of Harts suffers from high blood pressure 

The second offering at this summer's Tennessee Shakespeare Festival is a heartily engaging, often revealing Romeo and Juliet, which benefits much from a surprising new concept and notable performances by some of Middle Tennessee's finest actors. 

Actor-director Lane Davies—typically a leading man, here taking only a brief role as a magistrate—delivers a clever reimagining of the classic text. The Elizabethan age has given way to the French and Indian War; the Union Jack prominently waves o'er the proceedings, which benefit much from the contributions of Tennessee Repertory Theatre's elite designers Gary Hoff (sets) and Trish Clark (costumes). When the play's inciting deadly duel is fought with flintlock pistols, we know for sure we're not in old Verona anymore.  

The production bolts out of the gate, propelled by the entrance of Patrick Waller's passionate yet appealingly playful Mercutio. Clad in buckskin and strutting with rock-star swagger, Waller delivers his lines with masterful inflection and commanding machismo. With Eric Pasto-Crosby's Tybalt matching him in intensity, their opening clash sets the production humming with energy and conflict, effectively exploiting the pre-revolutionary tension in the new setting.

The festival performs under an agreeably spacious tent that welcomes in flickering fireflies as easily as it does the sound of the evening train clattering through bucolic Bell Buckle. It's a welcoming venue for good actors to declaim their Shakespeare, none better than Sam Whited, whose Friar Laurence is a warm and well-spoken mentor to the play's title characters. When he announces, "Women may fall when there's no strength in men"—a line that resounded sadly in the wake of Steve McNair's funeral—we note how the Bard's keenest words still resonate today.

As Capulet, Ronnie Meek pulls off the stern Act 2 tirade that emphatically dresses down his confused and vulnerable daughter. Giving full vent to his seething impatience and exasperation, Meek proves exceedingly effective after an uneven start. Ruth Cordell, as his wife, weighs in with a graceful precision that nicely counterbalances his bluster. 

Those who know their Romeo and Juliet may not recall the Nurse having so prominent a role, but David Alford makes his way front and center doing his best Mrs. Doubtfire imitation. His broguish attention-grabbing is cartoonish at times, but it's pointless to quibble about Alford's interpretation given the unexpected color he brings to the role (and the show). He also pulls double duty as the American Indian Apothecary.  

Somewhat ironically, the supporting players almost eclipse the ill-fated lovers at the play's center. Kahle Reardon gives Juliet an essentially artless reading lacking nuance and rounded tones, though she succeeds in transforming from innocent adolescent idealist to pained adult realist. Though his pronunciation is better, David Wilkerson's Romeo remains mostly on the same emotional plateau, overshadowed initially by the Mercutio/Tybalt bravado.

Eventually, though, momentum gathers in their favor—especially once Romeo curses his naïveté, then rouses himself dramatically to "shake the yoke of inauspicious stars." Director Davies has a long track record of doing Shakespeare in California and elsewhere, and his experience clearly shows in leading this newer enterprise, now in its second year. At present, he's mounting first-rate theater under pleasant summer skies—including, of course, th'inconstant moon, weather permitting.  

Hart unhealthy

Money's no problem for Jamison Hart, the pivotal character in Shawn Whitsell's new play House of Harts. Now if only he could account for the many complications in his personal life. At curtain's rise, Hart's two grown children are trying to adjust to the fact that his new wife, 15 years his junior, is pregnant.

But that soon becomes a lesser concern, as Whitsell's stewpot of transpiring dysfunction and shocking improbabilities boils over at every succeeding knock on the door. In plotting out his lengthy story, the author gives us hidden family secrets involving divorce, child abandonment, house fires, DNA tests, mental illness, drug abuse, illegitimate births and confused identities. 

It's a rocky road to understanding and closure, and Whitsell's characters don't mince words. Their confrontations are contentious and boisterous, reaching critical mass in Act 2 when Dianne Dixon, lamenting longtime motherly estrangement, delivers a forlorn speech that rivals the desperations of Greek tragedy. 

Mary McCallum, Jene India and Alicia Ridley also get their histrionic licks in, while the men—led by Jason R. McGowan II as Papa Hart—are less voluble but no less beaten down. But probably the best performance of the night is that of Tamiko Robinson, who stops in only for a late cameo but wins us over with both her toughness and wit.  

Whitsell's earlier drama Never Been Home, an emotionally raw, startling take on tensions within an African American family, plainly serves as the template for this effort. While House of Harts similarly works the "well-to-do family in extremis" theme, it's not as well structured and seems more concerned with excess than insight. That said, soap opera fans might find it a guilty pleasure. 

The play continues through July 18 at the Darkhorse Theater.   

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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