Romeo and Juliet: Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, hashed out a thousand times in hundreds of variations on both stage and screen. So what keeps a production of arguably the most famous love story in the world fresh, fun, and ultimately poignant?
Start with the creative team of We Happy Few, founded by Hannah Todd and Raven Bonniwell in 2012, and add a definitive goal — to represent Juliet’s struggle against the ruling families of Verona by surrounding her with men. That’s right — in a twist on the casting of Shakespeare’s day, director Todd conducts a cast of entirely male actors, save for Juliet herself, played by Bonniwell.
The effect of this casting decision is, in some scenes, hilarious and others, heartbreaking. The Nurse (unforgettably portrayed by Nathan James Bennett) begins the show brimming with sass that correlates perfectly with the seemingly endless anecdotes and innuendo that Shakespeare crafted into the character. However, as the play takes a turn towards misfortune, the Nurse eventually follows in the footsteps of the other men of Verona, advising Juliet to be obedient to her father’s wishes. In this way, even Juliet’s allies are a part of the society keeping her from her goals, which adds an entire new layer to the timeless story.
Juliet, too, is visceral and compelling. Far from a whining teenager, careful thought and precision peppers the various scenes she shares with Romeo (Sean Hudock) who responds with the same vaulted logic. In the end, it is Juliet who pronounces the final words of the epilogue, with the men all around her finally standing silent, telling all present that this is the story of “Juliet, and her Romeo”, and not the other way around. It’s the perfect note to end on, the bookend to the “tagline” described in the director’s note of the program: “Women may fall when there’s no strength in men.”
Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
1835 14th Street NW
Washington, DC, 20009
Details and tickets
But this is no ninety minute lecture on human morals and behavior. Like an episode of a prime time mob thriller, Todd’s cast of eight versatile actors (all playing multiple roles except for the titular couple) wastes no time getting us into the action. The prologue concludes, and the chorus bursts into insults, then battle cries, and finally a sequence of Casey Kaleba’s stunning fight choreography that, despite the aggressive nature of the scene, doesn’t skip out on physical comedy.
In fact, physical comedy, an easy thing to forget about when blocking one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, is threaded so seamlessly throughout the production that it actually contributes to character development rather than detract from it. The roughhousing of Romeo, Mercutio (William Vaughn), and Benvolio (Kiernan McGowan) on their way to the Capulet banquet easily presents the three as any modern teenage brothers. All factors contribute to one central goal: these are real people we might see walking down the street today, with real problems and real goals, even if they’re speaking almost another language in a time long past.
So much of this play is cinematic and tangible that I found myself rifling through the program hunting for a film connection. Costume styles and colors are correlated to imply character loyalties and relationships. An almost split screen effect simultaneously displays Romeo and Juliet’s wedding night with the Capulets’ betrothal of their daughter to Paris. And most memorably, a brilliant use of silhouette in the Capulet tomb sets the stage for the haunting climactic scene.
Overall, this is a Shakespeare production with modern flair and rich charisma, addictive and engaging even to those taking their first step into the world of the Bard. Put away your DVD copy of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and head to the Source Theater instead; you won’t be disappointed.