There are a few significant breaks from previous years' traditions (if three years is even long enough to establish a tradition) at this season's Shakespeare in the Garden. Presented by Santa Fe Classic Theater, in partnership with The Shakespeare Guild and the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, this show comes earlier in the season in hopes of avoiding monsoon rains. The set is stripped-down, the stage setup is flipped 180 degrees, and the cast skews considerably younger than last year's A Midsummer Night's Dream and 2017's The Tempest.

It's a lot of change for a young series. But it all absolutely works.

If you don't know the plot of Romeo and Juliet, first off, your high school English teacher failed you—and second off, it's pretty simple: Two teenagers fall in love, but their families hate each other, and then basically everyone dies. It's perhaps Shakespeare's best-known work, endlessly popular for its dreamy, flowery language, accessible themes and invigorating action.

I set aside my curmudgeonly "But why put this show on ever again?" feelings and just enjoyed the fact that director Patrick Briggs really knows how to cast, and that Santa Fe is lucky enough to have a charming outdoor theater in a garden.

Happily, every actor pulls their weight. There was no weak link, no small feat for a cast of 17. Many familiar names graced the program, names I've praised in this column—Miles Blitch, Tyler Nunez, Ann Roylance, Evan Dalzell, Lisa Foster and more. Also unlike previous years, the leading roles were not imported from out of state.

There were a few overwhelming standouts, and to start with one you may not expect: Nicholas Kohnen's Friar Lawrence was truly one of the highlights of the whole production. Kohnen is impossibly young for the role, which at first gave me pause,. But he has affected a perfect, kind-hearted fairy-godfather manner of speech as he calmly consults Romeo in his tribulations and wanders the garden, picking herbs. Every time Kohnen came onstage I was both comforted and excited to learn what he'd do next (as if I didn't know).

Lawrence's foil, Juliet's Nurse, was also impeccable. Mary Beth Lindsey was positively born for the role of the bawdy caretaker (disclosure: Lindsey and I are longtime acquaintances—but see her in a single performance and you'll know I'd praise her no matter what). She had the audience practically rolling in the gravel aisles with her asides, inflected perfectly for even children and newbies to understand, all frantic energy and nudge-nudge-winking. Between just the Nurse and Lawrence, I could have been satisfied enough.

But there was even more goodness here; namely, this Romeo. Each time I see Noah Segard onstage, I'm more impressed. I'd even go so far as to say that Segard may be one of the finest up-and-coming actors Santa Fe can boast. He's heretofore played smaller roles, and he finally gets his due here as the lead. Segard has it all: A rich, resonant voice, a spectral range of emotions, an engaging and charming demeanor, and a personality so comfortable onstage it's easy to forget you're watching a play. Segard is the real deal, and Santa Fe is incredibly lucky that he was lured here from Kansas by his fiancé (another thespian, Zoe Burke, who doesn't appear onstage this time, but who has previously played opposite Segard).

Also notable is actress Alyssa Bonanno as Juliet, a newcomer both to Santa Fe and to Shakespeare, quoth her bio. In a small town like ours, it's wonderful to watch individual actors spread their wings show-to-show, but there's a special thrill reserved for seeing someone come out of the blue with a great performance. I hope Bonanno performs more in Santa Fe; her Juliet was endearing without being childish, her measured delivery occasionally high-pitched without being shrill or immature.

And what is R&J without a cocky Mercutio? Santa Fe regular Hania Stocker steps up to the role with overwhelming energy. At the invited dress rehearsal, a gaggle of Upstart Crows (the classical theater troupe for ages 10-18) came by after their rehearsal to enjoy the production, and Stocker's endless sexual innuendo and blush-inducing delivery inspired no shortage of coquettish laughs and mouths agape from the students (and, let's be real here, the adults too). Be still my heart.

Stocker is always a chameleon onstage, and really the only aspect of the character of Mercutio that I would have changed was his death. (Oh, um, spoiler alert? We all knew about that, right?) I wanted it to be bigger, more poignant. The energy Stocker lends his scenes perhaps causes his fellow actors to move too quickly, which is usually not a problem—but here, I needed some silence to change the entire overarching mood, as his demise famously does in this story.

There's so much more to say; like how beautiful Jasminka Jesic's costumes were, as ever, or how the Capulets greased along the stage like slime as the Mountagues (yes, spelled and pronounced that way) appropriately bulldozed over them with humor and exhausting snark. But I'm out of room, as usual. Enjoy the show, folks—but, for best results, heed my tips:

  • Arrive early and bring a picnic. Doors to the garden open at 5:30 pm (which gives you an hour and a half until showtime), and Renaissance period music wafts among the flowers and along the dirt paths. It’s downright magical.
  • Bring a blanket. Or maybe a few blankets. And a winter coat. Maybe gloves. Even when these shows happened last July, teeth were chattering by the time we headed home at 9:30 pm. Media night saw a low of 52 as I left, but it felt like it could have snowed.
  • Bring a flashlight, or have your cell phone light handy. The footpaths are lighted, but not terribly well. They are very flat and safe, and the stage setup makes the whole shebang more accessible to those with mobility devices, but if you have any fears of tripping, better safe than sorry.
  • Lighten up. Even I am guilty of rolling my eyes when I heard we had yet another production of R&J coming down the pike—but honestly, it was fun and nicely done. Just enjoy thyself.

Romeo & Juliet
7 pm Wednesday-Sunday June 5-9. $10-$45.
Santa Fe Botanical Garden,
715 Camino Lejo,
471-9103; tickets here.