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At the Black Box Theatre at Mount Olivet United Methodist Church

to July 27

It sounded like such a good idea: Put Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers in World War I Belfast, position them on opposite sides of the Protestant-Catholic divide, and listen again to the timeless language of passion and prejudice that frames their story. And the Keegan Theatre’s new Romeo and Juliet has its moments: JJ Johnston’s weak-chinned prat of a Paris is fun, if not especially subtle, and the production’s conceit invites you to dwell on the subtext of that romantic banter about saints and shrines and pilgrims with which the two lovers test the boundaries of first impression. But it also invites questions—not least the crucial one about why two teenagers divided by religion would have equally strong relationships with a single priest—that go entirely unanswered. Forget the surface issues, though: Keegan’s cast has fundamental problems with characterization and language. Robb Welsh works so hard at dangerous-funny that his mush-mouthed Mercutio might be modeled on Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and in one particularly startling moment, co-directors Eric Lucas and Mark A. Rhea let him pronounce “demesnes” as “de-mess-ness,” which is as hard on the meter as it is on the ear. More generally, all that musical lilt lends the dialogue an unfortunate singsong quality—not, I suspect, because there’s any innate incompatibility between iambic pentameter and an Irish brogue, but because Keegan’s actors are working harder at their accents than at the emotions behind the words. Of course the leads, both imports from Ireland, don’t have that excuse, so it’s all the more disappointing that their performances seem so thin. Matthew Keenan’s slight, fresh-faced Romeo seems less love-maddened youth than hysterical drama queen, especially in his scenes with Jon Townson’s more nuanced Father Laurence; the ribbons and frills Jenny Gibson has provided for Sarah Dillon’s Juliet make her look roughly 12 years old, and Dillon’s constant simpering and foot-stamping don’t improve things. Townson’s Tybalt is as broad and unconvincing as his fight choreography, and every now and then there’s a directorial choice that’s just plain perplexing: If you were staging a party scene with a host who has to say, “Come, musicians, play,” would you cue the twee Irish folk music before that line? I’m all for updating and reinterpreting Shakespeare, but between the cast’s limitations and the surprisingly tone-deaf direction, this Romeo is rather more Troubles than it’s worth.—Trey Graham