Romeo & Juliet’s famous entreaty–“wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast”– is strikingly realized in the latest addition to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s yearly Free For All production, a two-week engagement where theatergoers have the opportunity to enjoy a performance free of cost. A reprise of STC’s critically-acclaimed 2016 production, director Alan Paul delivers a winning take on Shakespeare’s work of romance and inevitable tragedy that adds a youthful decadence to this canonical tale of star-crossed lovers.
For this staging, scenic designer Dane Laffrey drenches the stage in crimson, in a unit set reminiscent of Scarface combined with an eye towards modern Italian opulence, and complete with second-tier balconies and doorways nestled deep in the foreground. With the help of some truly striking lighting design by Jen Schriever, the unchanging unit set proves surprisingly flexible in its ability to move the action anywhere from Juliet’s chambers, the Capulets’ party, to Friar Laurence’s church effortlessly. Beyond practicality, Schriever’s lighting design casts long, angular shadows across the stage in key scenes that enunciate the play’s sense of foreboding, as well as beautiful occasions in which natural lighting seems to spill out through the tall windows of the unit set to awaken the slumbering lovers after their only night of carnal consummation.
As much as we like to focus on the romance and passion, and the injustice of Romeo and Juliet’s fate, Shakespeare was also concerned with the hastiness of impassioned youths and the brash, uncalculated actions they take that often sidestep thoughtful deliberation. While hearty helpings of passion are not amiss, this production’s modernized setting makes this moral of the story all the more evident with strokes of the glamorous, brazen lifestyles of the sort of young people who get scripted reality shows on MTV. The critical party scene where Romeo and Juliet first meet is the best example of this estimation, with the ensemble cast decked out in glittery costumes and suits, balloons strewn about, a DJ set, and raised cocktail glasses in between sensual dancing and flirtations galore. When Romeo approaches Juliet as a balladeer croons in the backdrop balcony, they’re given a spotlight as they exchange verses, singling them out amongst the raucous–special in how their story will unfold, yet not so different from the crowd of party people and other lovers-to-be.
Romeo, as played by a boyish, starry-eyed Sam Lilja, is wonderfully cast to embody a young man’s passionate whims and underbaked impulses. Dressed in a simple shirt and jeans, and sporting a trendy haircut, Romeo feels like your average teen boy, though of course he’s given the gift of Shakespearean language to articulate his feelings far better than most emotion-adverse young men. From his mopey grumblings about Rosaline in Act I, to the tender, hungry confessions of love to Juliet in the pivotal balcony scene of Act II, Lilja’s Romeo is an inspired performance of an impetuous youth thrust into the mature tragic folds of family rivalries, bloody squabbles, and fate.
Danaya Esperanza radiates the independent, willful, and girlish energy of a sassier young Juliet than I’ve seen in other productions. Her back-and-forths with the Nurse (a bawdy, playful E. Faye Butler) are delightful moments of comic relief and lively scheming, while her interactions with the haughty Lady Capulet (Judith Lightfoot Clarke) emulate the strained relationships of disinterested mothers and headstrong daughters. However, I found Esperanza’s Juliet to lack nuance as the story progresses and her character is met with the difficulties of a banished Romeo and her father’s tyrannical demands.
With a sprawling, talented supporting cast, the title characters must often make room for spotlight-stealing monologues, as is most evidently the case with Jeffrey Carlson’s award-winning reprisal of Mercutio, as well as Timothy D. Stickney’s Capulet. In the case of the facetious Mercutio, Carlson channels the euro-trash grunginess of a Trainspotting character with the breezy comedic beats of Johnny Depp’s “Jack Sparrow” character. Voyce’s costume design for Mercutio–a shiny, silver tracksuit–wonderfully enhances this inspired persona (though costumes for the rest of the Capulet and Montague boy-posse members feel contemporary, but slightly unfocused). Meanwhile, Stickner’s Capulet is the sort of performance that might startle the viewer, particularly when he threatens Juliet after she speaks out about her opposition to marrying the unnervingly WASP-y Paris (Thomas Keegan) in what is a raw, nearly violent outburst born of unchecked power and faulty masculine entitlement.
STC’s free two-week run of Romeo & Juliet is a gift to the DC community, a top-notch production that is as much a visual feast as it is an impressive exhibition of some of the best talent around, on-stage and behind the scenes. The show runs long, with only minor cuts to the original text, but even the pickiest theatergoer or the Shakespeare-weary will have little room to protest with this rich, compelling romance.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
Romeo and Juliet, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2018 Free For All production, plays through September 2, 2018, at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For information on how to access Free For All tickets, go online.