It’s hard to be popular. Everyone knows all about you and is talking about you and has an opinion. And when it comes to Shakespeare, the most popular of the bunch is Romeo and Juliet. It’s easy to see why – if you’re a teenager, this is the play that has main characters that look like you. Who feel teenage angst. Who fall in love deeply and quickly the way that teenagers do. And if you’re performing this in your high school, it’s the one where there’s lots of kissing. People know this play.
And that’s why it’s hard to stage. People will have opinions of it, even if they’ve never actually read the play properly all the way through. Or they think they know it, and that perhaps is worse, because they just have these ideas of how things should be. So it makes looking at the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet to open their 2016-17 season hard.
First off, I will say that I liked it. I had a good time, there were some spectacularly well acted parts. I always forget how much of a bravada part Lady Capulet has, and this production features Judith Lightfoot Clarke who is really quite good. So disconnected from the role of raising her child at first, and more distraught and shaken to the core by the death of her nephew Tybalt than anything involving her daughter.
Also terrific in this production is Jeffrey Carlson as Mercutio. Mercutio is a bizarre role – a sort of trippy dreamer who also is up for anything. The Boy and I kept thinking that the portrayal here – which made me think Mercutio was meant to be on some kind of party drug that makes you mellow at first and hot-tempered as you come down – was riveting. Anytime Mercutio was on the stage, you could not take your eyes off of him. He commanded attention in a quiet but forceful way.
Everything else was fine. Good. Not thrilling, but not bad by any means. My biggest gripe with the production is that it was obviously set in modern day – the clothes, the attitudes, the existence of guns – but Romeo and Juliet is not a show that can exist in a modern timeline. So much of what happens is misunderstanding because R & J are not able to get in touch with each other. In this modern world in which everyone, but teenagers especially are glued to their phones, would this even be possible? Yes – nearly all of the rest of the show is still relevant – grudges, gang-fighting, unreasonable parents, teenagers who fall in love too fast and too soon. But this fact of modern communication goes unacknowledged, and makes the entire modern setting feel farcical. Perhaps it’s an alternate present timeline where the internet didn’t happen, and cell phones aren’t a thing. But my comment to the Boy was that the most modern version of Romeo and Juliet that you could reasonably make without seeming unreasonable is the mid-90s…making Baz Luhrmann’s perhaps the best depiction of that time and setting.
What else – the costumes were much more meh than I’d hoped for. Perhaps I’d forced a different timeline on the play, but it all takes place within a couple days at first, and then a week more after the third act. There really aren’t as many occasions for delightful costumes as I would have thought. But even with that, our Romeo spent the entire play slouching around in skinny jeans and an oversized tee-shirt. Yes, he had cool hair but … maybe that’s just a more realistic depiction? Maybe teenage boys really do spend all their time in the same outfit? And I suppose I get that Juliet, recently abandoned by her new-husband for his banishment would spend the rest of her short life swathed in his oversized hoodie to maintain a kind of connection.
I mean – it was good. Go see it – you’ll have fun. Maybe I think I’m just overthinking things, or being petty about small details. But when you’re a popular play, one that people will know before arriving, you expose yourself to the possibility of getting bogged down in the details.