The Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet staged at the Lansburgh Theatre illuminates the actions of youth with irrepressible energy, emotion, and passion which result in multiple deaths. Set in a contemporary time and location, young people from the Capulet and Montague families clash over turf, much like in the 1950s musical West Side Story, also inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Throughout the performance, the audience witnesses verbal and physical fights between the two families. Like the film, this production’s multiracial casting evokes a Lower Manhattan atmosphere.
The reflection of today’s youth and their culture in this production by a DC theatre company is not coincident. In the program note, director Alan Paul states he wanted “teenagers to walk into the theatre and see people that look and dress like them, and have the experience of being a teenager” and “to understand and explore the anxieties and thrills of being young.”
However, what is lacking in the production is the ramifications of the history of animosity between the families that must have dictated the lives of those involved. Some hints of how the two wealthy families, surrounded by their bodyguards, have shaped the politics of the city and its residents would have made the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s contemporary-style presentation more convincing.
In jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, varsity jackets, tank tops, short pants, sneakers, and sunglasses, the characters of family, friends and servants of the Capulets and Montagues seem to be free from the webs of their family and city politics. Andrew Veenstra as Romeo and Ayana Workman as Juliet with their contemporary mannerisms and in casual clothes also seem free from the restrictions and control of parents and their politics. The famous balcony scene takes place in the Capulet dining room, insinuating that Juliet can walk around the house in her tank-top and pants late at night. If the climate is that free and open, the audience may ask, “What prevents Romeo and Juliet from eloping?”
The prologue is delivered by Shravan Amin in jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap, vacuuming the floor as he apparently listens to his iPod (in his pocket, so we don't see it). His presence as a twenty-first century youth and his lines about “a pair of star-cross’d lovers” who emerge from “ancient grudge” and “the fatal loins of these two foes” are a bit unconvincing.
Dane Laffrey’s monumental, architectural, red, two-story set serves as a bar, the Capulets’ home, a church, the streets, and the tomb. However, Laffrey’s scenography alludes so much to the Capulets’ home that it is unable to suggest the multiple scenes over the course of Shakespeare’s text. In this production, the first fight between the servants of the two families, Capulets and Montagues, takes place in a bar frequented by both. The following scenes of a feast at the Capulets, and later a sanctuary in the church, also use the same box set. As a result, every location appears to take place in the Capulet house. Despite this, an intriguing component of Laffrey’s design is a huge box at the center that served as a DJ box, an altar, and a bedroom by changing its level of transparency and reflection.
Juliet (Ayana Workman), in a tank-top and pajama pants, acts like a privileged and spoiled teenager but speaks like a well-read poet, reflecting the character’s innocence and intelligence. Andrew Veenstra portrays a likable idealist Romeo with high libido. Jeffrey Carlson’s Mercutio contrasts Veenstra by portraying a cynical yet loyal friend of Romeo. Keith Hamilton Cobb as Capulet and Judith Lightfoot Clarke as Lady Capulet portray a disconnected couple. Emily Townley, as Juliet’s Nurse (normally played by Inga Ballard), underscores the character's peppiness, wittiness and infusiveness. Because of their contemporary clothes, class distinction is erased and Townley’s Nurse in capri pants and bright dress shirt, looks and acts like Juliet’s favorite auntie.
Bright and somber lights contrast the stage in an attempt by Lighting Designer Jen Schrievner to juxtapose scenes such as the Capulet feast and a sanctuary in the church . Yet, a red box set that suggests the Capulets' power dominates throughout the show and makes the differences between locations a bit obscure. While Kaye Voyce’s costume design with modern day clothes often made the characters’ positions unclear, her costumes at the Capulet ball are exuberant. In their fabulous ballroom dresses and “modified” tuxedos, they dance to pop music, prepared by sound designer Daniel Kluger.
Setting Shakespeare in twenty-first century United States is extremely challenging because we do not live under the same kind of rules, cultural mores, and social values and expectations. It is difficult to convince the audience that the characters of our high-tech age would make the same choices that Romeo and Juliet made in their Renaissance time. In spite of the production's shortcomings, I commend the director’s attempt to encourage young audiences to relate to the story and characters, as well as to use them to reflect on problems such as violence and drugs.