Shakespeare in the Arb gets to the roots of "Romeo and Juliet"


Shakespeare in the Arb's Romeo & Juliet

Flower children: Romeo and Juliet make eyes in the Arb.

It’s perhaps a little surprising that over the 18 years that the University of Michigan Residential College has presented a Shakespeare play in Nichols Arboretum, this year’s production is the first time for Romeo and Juliet.

Of course, it’s one of Shakespeare’s best-loved works, packed with some of his most memorable lines and phrases. Certainly, any play with romance at its core has a place in the idyllic Arb. So whatever the reasons that it hasn’t been done before, the important thing is that it’s being done now. For fans of Shakespeare, of the Arb, and especially of both, it’s a treat.

The outdoor setting of the Arb might not seem as natural a fit for Romeo and Juliet as it has been for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has been produced there several times, or last year’s The Tempest. Yet that simply means the production has unique opportunities to take advantage of the surroundings, and so it does -- incorporating a fallen tree into a fight scene and beautifully using a live tree as Juliet’s balcony, for example.

The three directors -- this year, Shakespeare in the Arb founder Kate Mendeloff is joined by Carol Gray and Graham Atkin -- make use of several locations within the Arb to stand in for the Montague and Capulet homes and the play’s other settings. All the sites are fairly close together within the Arb, so once the audience makes the initial hike to the start of the play, the actual ground covered is minimal. There is, however, a fair amount of shifting between the locations. (Some may find this distracting; for others, it will be a welcome opportunity to stretch their legs.) 

As is usual with Shakespeare in the Arb productions, the roles have more than one actor cast (an updated cast list is posted on a chalkboard outside the ticket office). On opening night, Cam Flynn made for a dashing Romeo and Maria LoCicero was a charming Juliet. Both leads seemed thoroughly comfortable with Shakespeare’s language and rhythms, whatever the mood of the moment. Kyle Stefek played an effectively over-the-top Mercutio, and Dan Bizer-Cox created a multidimensional Benvolio. Overall, the entire cast did admirable work, despite the occasional opening-night missed line here and there. 

From the comic to the romantic to the tragic, the actors -- a combination of Residential College students and community members -- bring all the elements of the play fully to life. Perfect period costumes and a talented ensemble, including live musicians, add rich depths and textures to the production. Romeo and Juliet turns out to be a great fit for the Arb. 

Some hints and suggestions to make the most of the Shakespeare in the Arb experience:

  • Arrive early. This year’s production starts and ends at the small amphitheater in the Arb (near the edge of the Dow Prairie), which is a good 15-minute walk from the Washington Heights entrance.
  • Bring something to sit on. Both blankets and folding chairs are welcome; if the idea of three hours on the ground fills you with apprehension, by all means bring chairs.
  • As you’ll be reminded, “chair sitters” in the back, “ground sitters” in the front.
  • Use insect repellent. There should be some available at the Arb entrance, but you might want to bring your own just in case.
  • Bring water.
  • If you’re not an expert, read a brief synopsis of the play beforehand. It will help with following the plot and keeping the characters straight.
  • Above all, allow yourself to become absorbed by this interpretation of one of the Bard’s most beloved works.

Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and

The Shakespeare in the Arb production of “Romeo and Juliet” continues at 6:30 pm Thursdays-Sundays through June 24, weather permitting. Tickets are $10-$20, available at the Washington Heights entrance to the Arb on show nights (advance reservations available for members of Nichols Arboretum). More information is available on the Nichols Arboretum website, including details on tickets and parking, of Shakespeare in the Arb's Facebook page.