Romeo and Juliet: What exactly are you looking for in a Shakespeare play?
This tragedy starts out looking like a big party. Fair enough. Many big parties end in tragedy. It’s a great party until somebody dies. That’s what I guess director Barry Edelstein is going for with this eclectic production. The first half is glitzed up with '80s dance numbers and lots of hip movement. And the numbers are fun, energetic, crowd-pleasing.
The falling-in-love, dueling, and verbal sparring of the first half are full of youthful energy, hubris, and shenanigans. Louisa Jacobson plays the ingenue Juliet with a vivacity that carries the show. Aaron Clifton Moten is a good match for her. He allows her to shine while being suitably brooding and melancholy.
Candy Buckley plays the nurse as a lascivious old lady. She’s sometimes hilarious, but it’s the classic case of getting a cheap laugh and then going for a dozen cheaper ones, until we’re left with a septuagenarian cougar grinding her hips and feeling up teenagers. Less is more, honey. Less is more.
I found the first half of this production to be rather delightful. But my companion hated everything about it. He hated the '80s music. He hated the hip grinding. He wondered why people were coming to see a Shakespeare play when they “really wanted to see '80s karaoke.” He really hated the set.
On first seeing said set (I won’t spoil it)... to be honest, my heart sunk. But it actually worked in a lot of clever ways, and as a director I geekily appreciated the thought that went into it.
But that gets us back to the audience’s point of view. My companion is not a theater-wonk, and he came to see a tragedy. The silly dance numbers and gratuitous sexual gestures, therefore, were just a distraction to him. Whereas I came to see a play I’ve seen many, many times, to see how Edelstein would handle the material.
The typical theater-goer, though, the ones who think that Romeo and Juliet is the greatest love story of all time, thought it was great. They loved the music. They loved that it was approachable and understandable. They loved that it didn’t “feel like Shakespeare”
None of those I spoke to, however, had anything to say about the second half of the play. You know, the part where all the dysfunction comes to fruition in the double-suicide of two teenagers? (Conversely, my companion preferred the second half “because it actually felt like Shakespeare.”)
I get that contemporary people don’t get tragedy in the way people did in Shakespeare’s time, and I concede that’s it’s easier to focus on the comic and the crude while downplaying the tragedy. But are we supposed to be making people like Shakespeare because it’s like '80s karaoke, or are we supposed to be introducing them to something transcendent?
That’s the issue with this production. The first half doesn’t match the second. The emotional breach between the pre-intermission and post-intermission is huge. From my observations of the attendees, they simply erased part two so they could focus on the feel-good that came before.