Alan Paul’s direction of Shakespeare is brilliant. As familiar as I am with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, upon viewing this vibrant production, I felt as if it had been written today. The passion, the romance, the inevitable tragedy – all wrapped in Shakespeare’s delicious verse – gains an immediacy under Paul’s fresh approach to the tale of the most famous lovers in our western literature and drama.
There have been countless Romeo and Juliet’s set in modern dress and setting. But of the ones I have seen (including one where the ages of the characters were all reversed and it was set in a senior living facility), this production at the Lansburgh Theatre is not a director’s hat trick, but a stripping down to the essential elements of character and story, presented with the thought “what if this 400 year old play had just been written?”
The ancient grudge between two Italian (or perhaps Italian-American) families is pointed up as clearly as ever but with a gang feud veneer that could be ripped from your newsfeed. Rapiers and daggers are exchanged with snappy switchblades and full on street fighting – choreographed with a dangerous flair by veteran fight director David Leong who has a long history with Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC). The athletic and adroit ensemble makes Leong’s precise moves look improvisational and deadly.
Romeo, as played by the handsome and passionate Andrew Veenstra, is still Shakespeare’s soulful and easily smitten young man. With tee-shirt, jeans, and a contemporary hair-cut, Veenstra’s Romeo could be any one of the 20-somethings checking out girls at a party, thinking the one he is with is “the one.” Of course, Romeo has Shakespeare’s plummy verse to help express himself and Veenstra makes it seem as if he were uttering such eloquent phrases for the first time.
Veenstra’s Romeo is matched by the achingly innocent portrayal of Juliet by Ayana Workman. If there is a actress in a major regional production of this play who is more believable as the barely 14-year old Juliet, please find her for me. Workman’s delicate frame allows her to look no older than 16. When she expresses to her mother that marriage is “an honor I dream not of,” there is no irony or acting involved – simply truth from a teen whose mind is on the here and now.
When the here and now places Romeo into her life at her parents’ party, all bets are off. Passion and immediacy take hold, and the chemistry between Veenstra and Workman practically leaps off of the stage. Juliet’s chastity and Romeo’s charismatic nature appear to be mere extensions of Workman and Veenstra’s own nature. When they exchange words for the first time – “Give me they sin again / You kiss by the book” – there are no thoughts of iambic pentameter, only love and a physical attraction that delves deep.
Setting the play into a modern setting also places Romeo and Juliet’s relationship in a recognizable world of wealth and understated opulence we have seen through the glitterati and faux-famous celeb-utants of today. Lady Capulet, for example, as played with haughty arrogance and a wine-fueled haze by Judith Lightfoot Clarke, brings to mind those housewives of Beverly Hills or New York or even Melania Trump. Juliet, thankfully, does not wish to be the next Paris Hilton or Kardashian, and the conflict between the young teen and her socially conscience mother and father.
Paul’s casting coups were not spent only on the title characters; the director has assembled a supporting cast who do their own part to bring a contemporary vibe to Shakespeare’s time-honored tragedy. Juliet’s Nurse comes to life as an earthy nanny with attitude to spare by actress Inga Ballard. Ballard’s Nurse has a heart of gold for her little Juliet and a laugh that emanates from the souls of her feet. Her scenes with Workman as Juliet are believably touching and the deep relationship between nanny and child is in stark contrast to Lady Capulet’s treatment of her daughter as a commodity to trade to a wealthy suitor.
The other members of the Capulet house – Lord Capulet, kinsman Tybalt, and Juliet’s would-be suitor Paris are handled with expertise by Keith Hamilton Cobb, Alex Mickiewicz, and Gregory Wooddell.
From the Montague side, Jimmie “J.J.” Jeter makes the pivotal role of Benvolio as strong a best friend and cousin as any Romeo could hope for. Jeter not only shows the sibling close relationship to Veenstra’s Romeo, the actor brings out the comedic moments which give the early part of the play a light and vibrant touch to relieve the pain that follows. As the subdued yet flashy Mercutio, Jeffrey Carlson’s distinctive voice and languid demeanor make for a memorable turn. Carlson’s electrical intensity helps spark the escalating tension with the Capulets. I found myself on the edge of my seat during the heated confrontation scene between the Montagues and Capulets, even knowing the play as well as I do.
Romeo and Juliet
closes November 6, 2016
Details and tickets
Rounding out the principal cast, and providing gravitas and maturity, are Ron Menzel as Friar Lawrence, and James Konicek as Escalus, the prince. Menzel provides a fatherly presence and spiritual compass for the mercurial Romeo. Konicek’s commanding presence of authority challenged by the fraught atmosphere is also memorable.
The design work is top-notch, a hallmark of STC productions. The unit set, designed with understated opulence in a deep crimson by Dane Laffrey, serves as all the locations needed for the production. The lighting design by Jen Schriever enhances the unit set, moving the action from indoors to outdoors, to the Capulet house, and Friar Lawrence’s cell seamlessly. A distinctive glass column takes center stage and is almost a character of its own accord, changing from mirrored wall to secret enclave in an instant.
Music and sound is one more element that serves to contemporize this completely captivating production. Designed and composed by Daniel Kluger, the soundscape for Romeo and Juliet is subtle, and organic, never distracting from the play. When it comes time for the Capulet’s party, the the bass-line and rhythmic thrust of dance club techno dominates the ears, as the set becomes the hottest gathering in Verona. Look for the hip DJ, too!
After bringing new life to classic musicals such as Kiss Me, Kate, Man of La Mancha, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum for STC, Alan Paul can now add another classic to his list of triumphs. Bringing fresh eyes, sharp casting, and compelling collaboration to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is likely to be a new chapter in Paul’s steady rise as a sought after young director.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare . Directed Alan Paul . Featuring Andrew Veenstra, Ayana Workman, Jasmine Alexis, Shravan Amin, Jordan Aragon, Inga Ballard, Jeffrey Carlson, Timothy Carter, Judith Lightfoot Clarke, Keith Hamilton Cobb, Ross Desitche, Chris Genebach, Jimmie “J.J.” Jeter, James Konicek, Elise Kowalick, Rakeem Lawrence, Calley Luman, Ron Menzel, Alex Mickiewicz, Rafael Sebastian, Ryan Sellers, Brayden Simpson, Emily Townley, Gregory Wooddell, and Elan Zafir. Scenic design: Dane Laffrey . Costume design: Kaye Voyce . Lighting design: Jen Schriever . Sound design/composer: Daniel Kluger . Fight choreographer: David Leong . Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel . Production stage manager: Michael B. Paul . Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jeff Walker