Shakespeare on the Ridge returned to Ridgeville Park for its third season on July 14, with the Arc Theatre Company’s free performances  of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Despite mid-afternoon thunderstorms, a near-full “house” of about 80 persons  gathered on and around the Ridgeville hills, filling the chairs provided as well as many brought from home.

The play, trimmed to 95 minutes by director Mark Boergers, with characters removed or combined to fit the time allotted, was set in a vaguely ’50s-ish era. The outdoor setting and concrete slab stage limit the set choices, leaving the dialogue, costumes, and actor movement to tell the story.

Knives replaced swords in the fight scenes. In homage to Baz Lurmann’s 1996 film version, benches standing on end provided props behind which Romeo and Juliet could duck when they first met. A window in the building behind the stage provided the “balcony” for Juliet’s famous “wherefore art thou” speech.

As often expected, Mercutio, played brilliantly by Teddy Boone (last year’s exceptional Dr. Caius from the “Merry Wives of Windsor”), steals the show. Funny, philosophical and ribald, Mercutio always fascinates. Mr. Boone, a founding member of the Arc Theater Company and its casting
director, brings Mercutio to life. It has been said (by Harold Bloom among others) that Shakespeare had to kill off Mercutio to get audiences to care about his leads, and Mr. Boone’s rendition with humor, range and emotion, proves the point. The audience understood exactly what he meant when he shouted, “A plague on both your houses!” 

The Nurse, played with wit and venom by Arc newcomer Natalie Sallee, almost keeps up with Mr. Boone’s Mercutio. Given the text, and her complex and thought-provoking interactions with her charge, Juliet, the Nurse often surprises. Ms. Sallee does a fine job following the emotional course set by the text. Her interaction with Mr. Boone, brief though it was, caused everyone to perk up and listen.

As noted, the Nurse and Mercutio are expected to be stars. Less expected are some of the other casting choices, such as the inspired selection of the stunning Jessica Marks as Benvolio. Casting a woman as Romeo’s cousin, without changing the language, highlights some of the play’s themes in surprising ways. Ms. Marks runs with the challenges and the language, and she more than holds her own with a steely confidence.

Casting the hilarious Dave Daniels as the villainous Tybalt would, on the surface, seem out of place. Yet Mr. Daniels, brilliant last year as Slender in “Merry Wives,” demonstrates through his over-the-top delivery and facial expressions the ridiculousness of the family feud between the Capulets and Montagues. His scenes with Mr. Boone and Ms. Marks alone make it worth going to the show.

And then there are the leads. Romeo
is generally played as hotheaded and in love. Newcomer and Brad Pitt lookalike Julian Hester handles the part well. He is strapping and looks the part, and loses his cool well. He is every bit the youngster in love, with silly dancing and smiles.

More problematic is Sarah Jackson’s Juliet, a more difficult role in part because Juliet, at only 14, vacillates almost from sentence to sentence between childhood and adulthood. At times, Ms. Jackson handles the character well, but at others she seems to miss some opportunities. Hers is a solid performance, but not quite at the level of the others.

Overall, Arc Theater Company has done it again – and performances are free. If there is a downside, it is that O’Hare seems to have changed flight patterns recently and jumbo jets overhead can drown out parts of the performance. Fans will want to get to the show early and sit up close. “Romeo and Juliet” runs at 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday evenings through Aug. 5 behind the Ridgeville Park main building, Seward Street at Ridge Avenue.