Romeo and Juliet at the Shakespeare Theatre is a revelatory theatre experience. Director Alan Paul’s version of Romeo and Juliet has a complexity and richness that reaches deep into the meaning of the play. Romeo (Andrew Veenstra) and Juliet (Ayana Workman) light up when they are together. Their connection is electric and visceral, like certain barely understood passions which seem to fascinate and frighten those who, for better or worse, do not share them.
In a way, as Joseph Campbell has said, in The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers, they have entered into the hero’s journey:
They’ve moved out of the society that would have protected them, and into the dark forest, into the world of fire, of original experience. Original experience has not been interpreted for you, and so you’ve got to work out your life for yourself. Either you can take it or you can’t. You don’t have to go far off the interpreted path to find yourself in very difficult situations. The courage to face the trials and to bring a whole new body of possibilities into the field of interpreted experience for other people to experience—that is the hero’s deed.
The Capulet family has been interpreted in a novel way that makes them infinitely more human. Lady Capulet (Judith Lightfoot Clarke) has an air of elegance, but underneath she is a complicated woman who loves Juliet but is caught in the middle when her husband (Keith Hamilton Cobb) rejects his daughter. Cobb as Capulet has considerable authority, but he also holds Juliet in the air with love, as if she were still a little girl. Both are deeply attached to Tybalt (Alex Mickiewicz) and the devastation his death wreaks on them renders them both much easier to understand. Clarke, Cobb, and Mickiewicz all give formidable performances, and seem like members of a real family. Inga Ballard’s Nurse is a true mother to Juliet, and she finds many different aspects to the Nurse’s character; pride, humor, anger, and despair. Ayana Workman is an incandescent Juliet; at first fragile, but then infused with power due to the strength of her love.
Timothy Carter (Montague) and Emily Townley (Lady Montague) capture perfectly the helplessness and fury of parents who lose a child. Andrew Veenstra’s Romeo is the quintessential romantic hero. He is especially moving as he falls apart under the pressures of exile.
The first scene takes place in a dark red tavern. The Capulets and Montagues are like boys from a rough neighborhood who have turned to gang warfare. Friar Laurence (Ron Menzel) is like a Boys’ Town counselor, or a Jesuit serving in a troubled neighborhood. His relationship with Romeo is powerful and full of conflicting emotions.
Although both the Capulets and Montagues are wealthy, they seem to lead a hair-trigger existence–on the edge of exploding any minute. This is a world spinning out of control.
Jeffrey Carlson is a sardonic Mercutio, his blond hair standing up all over his head, his eyes snapping with intelligence and wit. Jimmie “J.J.” Jeter is a wonderfully comic Benvolio. James Konicek’s Escalus is dressed like a modern mid-level manager, but he is a commanding presence when needed. As Paris, Juliet’s would-be husband, Gregory Wooddell has a winning smile and an air of insouciance that is unusually effective in this difficult role.
The Nurse has particularly bright and comic moments with Peter (Shravan Amin). Chris Genebach as Gregory/Friar John, Elan Zafir as Sampson, and Ross Destiche as Balthasar all perform with truthfulness and skill. Rakeem Lawrence in the pivotal role of the Apothecary has a poignant scene with Romeo. The Singer (Jordan Aragon) and the Ensemble; Jasmine Alexis, Shravan Amin, Jordan Aragon, Elise Kowalick, Rakeem Lawrence, Calley Luman, Rafael Sebastian, Ryan Sellers, and Brayden Simpson are all to be commended for first-rate performances.
Dane Laffrey’s Scenic Design fulfills Director Paul’s vision beautifully—there is even a Madonna who presides over Friar Laurence’s cell. Kaye Voyce’s costumes are refreshingly simple and unpretentious for Romeo and Juliet, and more formal for the older Capulets. Lighting Designer Jen Schriever, Sound Designer/Composer Daniel Kluger, and Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel’s work is consistently excellent. Fight Choreographer David Leong has staged some of the most exciting fight scenes I have ever seen in any production.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell wrote:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man
Of course, the question then becomes, “How can Romeo and Juliet’s tragic fate be considered a victory?”
Northrop Frye has said:
[N]othing that breaks through the barriers of ordinary experience can remain in the world of ordinary experience….Our perception of this helps us to accept the play as a whole, instead of feeling only that a great love went wrong. It didn’t go wrong: it went only where it could, out. It always was, as we say, out of this world.
Romeo and Juliet are heroes of consciousness. Their extraordinary love, a shining light in a broken world, points the way to compassion. The modernity of this production brings their story close to our hearts.
Romeo and Juliet plays through November 6, 2016, at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.
‘Romeo and Juliet’ at Shakespeare Theatre Company reviewed by Patrick (PJ) McMahon on DCMetroTheaterArts.