Staging it in modern dress, emphasizing the street gang aspect of the young Montagues and Capulets is not a completely original idea. However it is rare to see any Shakespeare play, with creative visual and musical touches, which also communicates the language to the audience, not only clearly but with an abundance of humor.
Romeo and Juliet is the proto-type of West Side Story, except that it takes place higher up the social scale. Two noble families in Renaissance Verona have been in a decades- long feud, with regular street brawls between the younger members of each clan, until Romeo Montague, recently spurned in love, crashes a Capulet dinner/dance with his pals and accidently falls in love at first sight with Juliet Capulet. The result is not pretty.
Director Vanessa Miller emphasized that Romeo and his pals, Mercutio, Benvolio as well as the Capulets were teenagers, that is to say, driven by a composition of 90% testosterone and another 90% adrenalin, and the physicality of the dance and fight choreography reflected this.
Since the actors really made the text come alive, all the wit and humor of the sexual innuendos, imagery and metaphors kept the audience laughing, in the first half of the show. It was so superbly done, that it almost made me regret the sexual revolution, which has made us so open about sexual desire, that oblique witty references to sex have disappeared.
In addition, Miller used enchanting music composed by Justin Huertas to punctuate the performance with an appropriate mood-enhancing score. The dance scenes were served very well by the music; when the dream sequences were acted out on stage, the music created a surreal effect transmitting the sublime potency of dreams.
In those days, so the director’s notes explains, Renaissance man thought dreams were communications from the spirits. We all known now, that that was just another vocabulary for what we believe now, that dreams are a communication pathway from our unconscious chaotic mind to our conscious logical mind. With dance, lighting and music these dream sequences foreshadowed coming events.
The only problem with the production is that, Shakespeare does not write the greatest plot, since the ending seems a little contrived and melodramatic rather than a pure tragedy. Accident causes Romeo’s death and subsequently Juliet’s. The second half of the play, when Juliet, already in a secret, religiously sanctioned, consummated marriage to Romeo, agrees to feign death before a parentally approved marriage to Paris, is not crafted as well as the first, and has very little humor.
Also, the actor who played Lord Capulet, Juliet’s father, Mike Dooly, relied on anger and shouting, rather than using language to intimidate Juliet to accept an arranged marriage. Loud voices, when the audience is sitting close, are very uncomfortable.
However the rest of the cast put in spectacular performances. One of the funniest was Trevor Young Marston as Mercutio, Romeo’s hot-headed and verbally explosive pal. His Queen Mab monologue could not have been better or more entertaining; as he was vocally on top of it and added just the right physicality to make me, and most of the audience, fall off our chairs with laughter.
The frenzied chemistry between him and Romeo, played by Riley Neldam, kept up a sense of suspense through-out the first half. Alternating between being love-sick, peace-making and impulsively vengeful, Neldam’s Romeo reminded us how fragile life is for hormone-rich adolescent males. ( Any adult kept wondering why there was no football team in Verona for these kids!!!!)
Anastasia Higham’s Juliet was a casting director’s dream come true, small enough to pass for a not quite fourteen year old, but with sufficient acting ability to play, not just the intense sexual desire, but also the strength of character it took for a woman, of that era, to defy her father. Along with conflicts about loyalty, she also expressed a hidden strength of character, rarely seen in other productions of R & J.
Other standouts in the cast were Chris Enweiler as Friar Lawrence, who had a subtle ironic delivery of his lines and moved like a youngish Puck onstage. His facial expressions bespoke all the exasperation adults feel when consoling love-struck teen-agers. In contrast to Friar Lawrence’s understated humor was the Capulet Nurse, played by Kathryn Van Meter, a part written as the “clown” character ( but for a female) with overstated bawdy humor. However, as a female and a servant, eventually she succumbs to the male power structure, leaving Juliet to muddle through the wretched situation herself. Although it does not come out in the text, in Catholic Italy, for the Nurse to advise Juliet to enter into a false marriage, after having consummated her marriage to Romeo, was advising her to commit adultery, a mortal sin.
All in all, this is an outstanding production eloquently expressing the wit and imagery of the greatest poet of the English language with humor, visual beauty and of course, music which elevated it to grand opera standards. It was also just plain fun!!!! Get your tickets right away as it is likely to be sold out.
Romeo and Juliet, Seattle Shakespeare Company. 305 Harrison, Seattle, WA 98109 Cornish Playhouse, Seattle Center. Wed-Sat 7:30 pm Sun 2 pm. May 4-May 22, 2016. Tickets: http://www.seattleshakespeare.org/season-and-tickets/ Or (206) 733-8228