Director Aaron Posner certainly had a vision of a new Shakespeare – an amalgamation of modern acting and old-school style, it’s as though Ireland of the 1800s met the hipster culture of today. The descriptor is best summed in the setting, where organic fiddle-tunes and resounding drumbeats from composer Carla Kihlstedt form the backdrop of confident young acting in indie dress. Posner cranks up the modernity and edginess of the production to a new level as the mannerisms and style of our modern youth are imbued in small, subtle ways throughout the play.
The play begins as the fiery Capulets and the dignified Montagues – and those in between holding the peace – walk about the stage in understated brown and grey cotton and flannel, reminiscent of Peaky Blinders-era Irish urban-scape. Indeed, industrial-style structures create a climbable balcony and the attached holographic panels attached reveal period prints to indicate setting and time – not so far off, perhaps, from a classic setting, thanks to the effective scenic design of Meghan Raham and costume design of Laree Lentz.
We are introduced to Romeo and his companions, the brash Mercutio and goofy Benvolio. The trio embodies the psyche of modern young man. Romeo (Michael Goldsmith) is a sensitive and creative writer, with limitless energy as he jumps and runs across the stage, leather-bound journal in hand, proclaiming the depth of his love for Rosalyn. Aaron Bliden plays Benvolio, the loyal kinsmen, who balances and grounds the hot-tempered, but fun-loving scoundrel Mercutio (Brad Koed), who provides comedic relief as he pokes fun at Romeo and others and inserts vulgar jokes into the conversation. The trio pound down the center aisle incorporating audience members into the dialogue and climb onto the railings of the audience upper balcony, shining spotlights on each other from across the theater.
Though the Montague party may rest unique in the physical embodiment of it through movement, the theme of modern youth hits its peak as Juliet (Erin Weaver) overcomes the stage with a huge and entirely unique personality. Accessorized in a woolen beanie, thick-rimmed glasses, and loose leggings a la Taylor Swift, the Juliet of Posner’s mind resembles nothing of the ethereal, moon-struck, maid that is often stereotyped of the character. She is bold, brash, full of sarcastic wit and unflinchingly straightforward in her declaration of heart and mind – a modern girl in all sense. In fact, it is Romeo who is the shy one in this case, as he hesitates and stammers during the Pilgrim’s hand scene while Juliet shows quiet resolve and good humor – a poignant moment made real by a reversal in characterization of sorts. The two young people fall deeply for one another as Romeo spins on the ladder under Juliet’s balcony, leaning in for kisses under a spotlight moon.
Critical to the young people’s plans of romance and secret marriage are Friar Lawrence and Juliet’s Nurse, played by the talented Helen Hayes Award winners Eric Hissom and Sherri L. Edelen. They both provide great humor to the otherwise somber theme of the play; Friar Lawrence deadpans as he attempts to wring logic into the love-struck duo, while the well-intentioned but flustered Nurse runs the opposite route and both laugh uproariously with Juliet and trades sparring insults with a petulant Mercutio.
The cast is bolstered by the acting prowess of Brian Dykstra as the dichotomous Lord Capulet, swinging seamlessly between a warm and loving family man and abusive, controlling patriarch who domineers his long-suffering wife (Shannon Koob). Paris (Joe Mallon) is Lord Capulet’s close confidant and chosen bridegroom for his daughter, a warmhearted but simple character oblivious to the chaos that is occurring around him. Across the fray are the Montague Lord (Allen McCullough) and Lady (Michele Osherow), both stoic but not so steady in the face of Romeo’s banishment. Matthew McGee plays triple duty as multiple supporting characters, and whose well-timed interpretation of brief comedic moments provided a refreshing breather in otherwise dense content.
The conflict between Verona’s two big families comes to a head when, in a moment of honor-fueled rage, the Capulet’s nephew Tybalt (Rex Daugherty) initiates a swordfight with Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio. In a twist of events, Romeo is banished and his plans to announce his marriage with Juliet and end the Capulet-Montague enmity is laid to waste. What follows is a tragic miscommunication and bad draw of chance that leads to the desperate and altogether realistic death of the star-crossed lovers, missing each other in consciousness by mere seconds.
Folger Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet is fresh, fun, and full of dynamic spirit. It pulls you back to a full stop as you fall into a fast, somber second act, and will rivet you to your chair in an emotional roller coaster of good-humored laughter and the cold, tragic silence of the final scene.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, with one 15-minute intermission.
Romeo and Juliet plays through December 1, 2013 at Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library—201 East Capitol Street, SE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 544-7077, or purchase them online.