THEATER REVIEW | Classical Actors Ensemble’s “Romeo & Juliet” and “A Chaste Maid In Cheapside”: The suicidal love story reinvented


If you’re looking for an antidote to the suicidal love story of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, has Classical Actors Ensemble got a play for you. The bawdy, cross-dressing, gross, and hilariously politically incorrect A Chaste Maid In Cheapside from Thomas Middleton is so outrageously nasty that you’re liable to forget you’re watching a piece of classical theater. It seems even more obscene and disrespectful if, like Classical Actors Ensemble, you play it in rep with the previously mentioned Romeo and Juliet. It’s a savvy move, using the same cast for both plays and running them alongside one another, because then you get the full effect of how you can play the same kind of tragic story for laughs. Fair warning though, if there’s something revolting a person can do with, say, food, they do it in Cheapside. There was more than one time that I had to look away so I didn’t throw up myself. But hey, that’s half the fun, right? It was certainly more than half the fun for the cast. They’re having a ball doing Cheapside and it shows. 

“Here’s my fiddlestick.  Here’s that shall make you dance.”

To be fair, there are also a lot of laughs in Romeo and Juliet, and the cast seems to be having just as much fun digging into that classic. They just can’t get away with being quite as goofy. I almost can’t believe I’m doing this but I find myself enthusiastically endorsing yet another production of the of-produced romantic tragedy. Heretical as it sounds, Romeo and Juliet isn’t on my list of favorite Shakespeare plays. The language is lovely, as ever, but there’s a reason the late movie critic Roger Ebert used Romeo and Juliet as the go-to example of what he called an “idiot plot.” The story would fall apart if everyone involved weren’t a complete and total idiot. It rests on so many convenient coincidences for the storyteller and so many willful misunderstandings between people that it asks for a lot more suspension of disbelief than most stories. Still, when they announce upfront in the narration how the story is going to end, and the audience spends most of its time listening to a couple of teenage lovers who repeatedly threaten to kill themselves as the first option when the slightest thing goes wrong, well, it can’t be much of a surprise at the end when (spoiler alert) “a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life.” (If you’re honestly in need of more of a plot synopsis for the story, you can click over to this review of yet another recent Romeo and Juliet.)

“A wise man, for love, will seek every hole.”

Why am I enthusiastically endorsing another Romeo and Juliet? Because, though the production has many strengths, you really have to see Hannah Steblay as Juliet. It’s like the actress and director Michael Kelley finally cracked the code of what makes a good Juliet. The weird thing is the solution was staring us all in the face the whole time. Juliet wasn’t raised by her uptight mother Lady Capulet (McKenna Kelly-Eiding). Juliet was raised by the Nurse (Lolly Foy)—the loud, bawdy, brash, chatty, fun-loving nurse. If you were raised by that Nurse, how would you turn out? Hannah Steblay’s Juliet isn’t exactly a tomboy, but she’s darn close. This may not be how a lady acts, but it is how someone who’s enjoying her life and comfortable in her own skin acts. She shouts, she dashes around the stage with abandon, she lets her mouth get ahead of her brain, she hikes up her skirt so she can sit more comfortably and you get the distinct impression she’d rather be wearing pants. Demure is the last word that you’d think to apply to this particular Juliet. 

“I have bought the mansion of a love but not possessed it.”

In this production, Juliet’s rashness makes sense because she feels things just as deeply and as fully as her Romeo (Nate Cheeseman).  Of course, Steblay couldn’t be as great a Juliet without all those other relationships around her—Lady Capulet, Nurse, Romeo, as well as father Lord Capulet (Randall J. Funk), Friar Laurence (Kevin Carnahan), and suitor Paris (Justin Hooper)—being equally as strong, drawing the levels and detail of that performance out of her, but Steblay as Juliet is the major revelation here. As a result of this very different Juliet, even things as timeworn and overdone as the infamous balcony scene seem fresh and new (and with the number of Romeo and Juliets I’ve seen over the years, that’s saying something. Just me saying I really enjoyed a production of Romeo and Juliet is saying something). In fact, I feel a little sorry for anyone who does Romeo and Juliet after this. Say this was the first time someone saw the play. If they go to another production, even a good one, I hear them saying, “Well, it was okay, but did this Juliet seem a little bland to you?” If you want to see the play with new eyes, you should really see this production from Classical Actors Ensemble.

“Honesty, wash my eyes.”

Director Kelley has assembled a great cast here (though since it’s also the same cast deployed in A Chaste Maid At Cheapside, equal praise should be given to director of Cheapside, and artistic director of the Classical Actors Ensemble, Joseph Papke. A pair of productions that dovetails this well is most certainly a joint effort). There really isn’t a weak link in the bunch. All the performers have a strong grasp of the meaning of the language they’re speaking and are able to convey that meaning to the audience, even if the language isn’t the modern day English to which we’re accustomed. That in and of itself is a major hurdle for a lot of productions of Shakespeare, and the Classical Actors Ensemble clears that hurdle so easily it doesn’t even seem like that big a deal. You have to remind yourself that what they’re doing isn’t nearly as easy as they make it look. 

“Come, let’s away.  The strangers are all gone.”

In addition to the solid overall team and all the strong performances already noted above—the other key roles that make the play pop all get star turns as well —Mike Ooms as the clever and mischievous Mercutio, Dan Joeck as the hot-headed street fighter Tybalt, Neal Beckman as well-meaning wingman Benvolio. Even roles that could seem thankless like Lord and Lady Montague (Joe Wiener and Samantha Veldhouse) and luckless old Friar John (Wiener again) get an enjoyable spin to them, again because these actors know how to tackle this text. That skill and polish shows through on every level, and the production is much the better for it. Even Juliet’s unwanted suitor Paris (Justin Hooper) gets a makeover here, again thanks to a scrupulous attention to the text. Rather than being a generic man of status who’s considered a good catch for an arranged marriage by Juliet’s parents, Hooper’s Paris actually has a personality. He’s an eager, if not entirely welcome, visitor to the Capulet house, and perhaps not the sharpest tool in the shed. But he’s not a joke, just someone who longs to please but is hopelessly out of his depth.

“The earth hath swallowed all my hopes but she.”

As much fun as the cast is having with Romeo and Juliet, they really let loose on A Chaste Maid In Cheapside. Here they all get to affect lowly born English accents from the wrong side of town, as if Monty Python was allowed to take over Masterpiece Theater. The Cheapside plot has a lot of elements in common with Romeo and Juliet —most especially two young lovers (of which, again, Nate Cheeseman is one) who want to be together despite their parents’ strenuous objections. There’s even a convoluted plot in which they fake their own deaths (“What could possibly go wrong?” one character says to the audience, an enormous wink to anyone even remotely familiar with Romeo and Juliet, even if they don’t have the good sense to see this production.) Again at the end, the children’s “deaths” bring the families together, but here the double funeral actually ends up being a wedding and a general make-out session for everyone onstage. A much happier and hornier outcome for all concerned. It was an enormously happy play for one set, as this production has it, in 1930s Depression era times. People don’t seem to be worrying too much about money here, just how they can “get some” from other people they find attractive. It seems the era was used more to invoke the milieu of screwball comedy than anything else, and it works for Middleton’s play in a big way.

“Shake the yoke of inauspicious stars from this world-wearied flesh.”

Since A Chaste Maid In Cheapside is the lesser known of the two plays on display, let’s recap: Moll Yellowhammer (Nissa Nordland) is in love with young Mr. Touchwood (Nate Cheeseman) and they’re carrying on an affair right under her parents’ nose.  Moll’s parents Mr. Yellowhammer (Justin Alexander) and his wife Maudlin (Samantha Veldhouse) are trying to find suitable marriage material for their two children. They have horrifically bad instincts for this.  For example, they think a man named Sir Walter Whorehound (Zachary Morgan) sounds like a fantastic match for their daughter. 

“My dismal scene I needs must act alone.”

Whorehound’s web of sordid relationships engulfs almost the entire play. Even as he courts a reluctant Moll, he’s got a whole family across town that isn’t entirely his own. He’s taken as his primary lover the very pregnant (yet again by him) Mrs. Allwit (Lolly Foy), whose husband Mr. Allwit (Joe Wiener) is more than happy to give Whorehound free access to his wife, so long as Whorehound pays all the bills for the upkeep of the household and his many bastard children. It’s a very amicable business arrangement.

“That is not an exit.”

Eiding) as his cousin—and a perfect candidate for Tim’s wife. This way Whorehound gets to move on with Moll while still keeping his lady friend in the family, just in case.

“Dry sorrow drinks our blood.”

But young Mr. Touchwood has help in his plot to grab Moll for his wife instead. Mr. Touchwood has an older brother, also Mr. Touchwood (Dan Joeck), who is more than happy to concoct a complicated scheme to bring the young lovers together. He needs to do this while also juggling his own lady problems—a wife he must part from, and a former paramour with a bastard child he must avoid (both played by Hannah Steblay).

“This is an unlucky breakfast.”

Toss into the mix Whorehound’s manservant Davy (Justin Hooper) biding his time to make his own play for Whorehound’s fortune, and the childless couple of Sir Oliver Kix (Kevin Carnahan) and his wife Mrs. Kix (Mike Ooms), plus a couple of uniformed officers (Ooms and Funk again) wandering the streets and the audience to ensure that everyone’s abstentions for the season of Lent are fully enforced, and you have one weird stew.  Oh yes, and the ensemble also plays various servants, maids, puritans, christening guests, water-taxi men, city dwellers and bastard children—just because that’s the kind of city in which this story takes place (in addition to everyone mentioned above, we also have Steve Modena, Ben Stroup, Daniel Vopava, Erin Vork, Lauren Vork, and Ryan Voss – phew).

“This is dear mercy and thou see’st it not.”

There are, as previously warned, many moments of grossness, a number of them involving food. There is also what feels like a whole parade of men in dresses, and I’m not entirely sure why.  Maybe Middleton wanted it that way. Certainly a tradition exists of men playing all the women’s roles in theater of times gone by, and here at least they are only in minor roles— the female leads and major supporting roles are all still played by actresses. 

“Waxing his bean pole to stick a peach pie.”

I do appreciate the old school, barebones approach to these productions that is a staple of Classical Actors Ensemble’s work. Some simple platforms, bare bulb lighting that rises and falls very simply, modern dress in this case for much of both productions. Also, the live music smattered throughout the performances themselves, as well as before the show and during intermission. The relationship between actors and audiences is much more direct, fewer stylistic barriers and breaks between them. It puts the emphasis where it should be, on the words and the performances.

“Riddling confession finds but riddling shrift.”

However this does also throw the underlying the misogyny and homophobia of the two texts into much sharper relief. I tried not to let it get to me, as I tend to have an overly sensitive trigger sometimes where those two things are concerned. I didn’t want it to color my enjoyment of the rest of either production, and to a large extent it didn’t. But it did keep resurfacing all the same. Surprisingly, it was more of an issue for Romeo and Juliet than it was for Cheapside. Given how coarse Cheapside can be, and how lyrical Romeo and Juliet is, that was definitely not the overall feeling I was expecting to come away with.

“The fatness of your wishes to you all!”

I understand that if women were treated as equal citizens and men were allowed to express their feelings openly without being branded as weak, we’d lose a whole host of dramatic possibilities onstage. Still, I’d really like to have that problem. There’s a difference, for example, in Neal Beckman playing Tim as effete and foppish in Cheapside, and Neal Beckman as Benvolio mocking the mention of cousin Valentine with a limp wrist and a little prancing.  (Not hating on Neal Beckman. I love me some Neal Beckman. In fact, he embodied the exact opposite of all this in Rain Follows The Plow not long ago. Mr. Beckman and his two characters are just the cleanest parallel I can draw between the two shows where this issue is concerned.) Homosexuality, or even homoeroticism, doesn’t really exist in Cheapside, and women give as good as they get and work the system even as it is stacked against them. 

“Prick love for pricking and you beat love down.”

The more troubling undercurrents of Romeo and Juliet are probably part of why Steblay’s “take no prisoners” approach to Juliet is such a welcome relief, or why it’s always such a kick to watch the Nurse tell Romeo to get a hold of himself, stand up and pull it together. In similar fashion, the way Mike Ooms and Dan Joeck play the unspoken tension both individually in their characters of Mercutio and Tybalt, and then how the subtext suddenly becomes almost bottomless between them when they face off on the street against one another, makes the production so much richer. Then in Cheapside you put Mike Ooms in a dress. He’s having a good time, so no harm, no foul. But we’re supposed to laugh at him. We’re not supposed to take him seriously, not as a woman, certainly not as a man in a dress. Of course, you’re not supposed to take anything seriously in Cheapside so… so, why does it still bug me?

“This night will stick to my ribs still.”

Because I’m thinking too much. There’s an amazing and original Juliet at the center of this production of Romeo and Juliet, and there’s a great antidote to all the teenage sturm and drang in A Chaste Maid In Cheapside. Go. See them. Tell me I’m full of it. Classical Actors Ensemble hasn’t just dusted off these old classics. They’ve reinvented them.

Both plays – 4-1/2 stars, Very Highly Recommended