Dallas — Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has almost been done to death (pun intended). Arguably the most beloved of the Bard’s plays shows up in outdoor festivals, theaters looking to up their culture quotient, typical classroom and school theater fodder, and myriads of movies and adaptations. However, most producers have long known that the best way to fill seats is with a straight-ahead (usually period) production. The truly out-there version rarely emerges onstage.
Film has taken the most liberties with its adaptations of the tragedy from the far out bloody surreality of Tromeo and Juliet (1996), the action antics of Romeo Must Die (2000), and even the loosely translated West Side Story (1961). The big budget prestige pieces have tended to the traditional with Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 version using real teenagers filmed on location as the example par excellence. Baz Luhrmann’s candy-colored modern musical Romeo + Juliet (love it or hate it) stands out as one of the few versions of the play that does something distinctive, yet captures the true spirt of the original.
Luhrmann’s creation was in my mind as I witnessed Dallas Theater Center’s sleek, propulsive, and updated Romeo and Juliet at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. Director Joel Ferrell, fresh off of a spectacular 2015 of helming Shakespeare (his Othello at Second Thought Thought and Love’s Labour’s Lost at Trinity Shakes were two of my favorite Bard productions) infuses the play with a musically accessible sensibility. He trims the cast down to a lean ensemble of 10, cuts large chunks of the play, and keeps the pace snappy with actors sitting onstage while not acting, reducing exits and entrances, allowing scenes and settings to overlap like a film’s continuous long shot.
Initially I was skeptical that the play could still work without important characters like the mothers of the titular lovers, or Prince Escalus; however, the strength of what remains won me over.
We are in present time in an “American Town,” looking at a John Coyne’s stark yet striking set of neon beer signs, soaring ceiling lights, a brick backdrop, with double staircases leading to interactive seats (inspired idea) up top. The clever use of the turntable stage keeps things even more active—and having actors not in the action seated on stage works especially well when Tybalt and Mercutio, after their deaths, are included in this concept, like a dead chorus.
This production begins at the end with death all around, Capulet (Chris Hury) and Montague (Sam Henderson) at each other’s throats, and Benvolio (Clinton Greenspan in his DTC debut), instead of the missing prince, summing up the destruction, “All are punish’d.” The theme of extensive and cyclical suffering fits in with Ferrell’s vision of how violence perpetuates itself and spreads to the guilty and the innocent alike. Ferrell emphasizes that even those best situated to end the strife between the warring families—the Friar and the Nurse—are unable (or unwilling) to stand up against the tide of violence.
Christie Vela’s Friar Lawrence is a welcome revelation. She elevates a role that is often elided and provides a maternal figure. She treats the stage like a pulpit, and her opening, “peace be with you” was so strong that many in the audience responded “and also with you.”
Liz Mikel as the Nurse gets the biggest laughs (as the Nurse should), I just wish she would play around a bit more with the role, luxuriate in it and make it her own.
We meet most of the young male characters in a bawdy boys club of a pool hall where they make dirty jokes, rib each other, and brag about conquests—when Romeo (Jake Horowitz in his DTC debut) isn’t moping. Benvolio, and Mercutio (Drew Foster also a DTC newcomer) round out the testosterone-fueled trio. Kudos to Ferrell and Justin Ellington (original music and sound design) for weaving some lines into music in an unobtrusive way that often illuminates the text. Mercutio’s raucous, David Bowie-esque “Queen Mab” speech/concert is the highlight.
More about Romeo’s feisty friend: Foster is sinewy, full of verve, and nearly steals the show. Even Shakespeare knew this, so he wrote his death in early in the play. It is too bad that Mercutio and Romeo’s foil, Tybalt (Robert George), feels marginalized (due to editing) in this production.
Horowitz’s Romeo is a bit too airy and light for my taste, often dominated by Juliet (Kerry Warren in her own DTC debut), Mercutio, or even Benvolio. The text can support an overly sensitive and fickle version of the lover, so perhaps Romeo’s vulnerability is emphasized here.
Warren’s Juliet is more mature than her Romeo. She is fully in control even when the self-conscious attitude and mannerisms of a young teen peek through. Warren’s performance is so robust that she brings to mind the supposition by many that Shakespeare’s men are rarely worthy of their female counterparts.
I must make a special mention of Hury’s blistering performance as Capulet who seethes, weeps, and reacts even when he is seated “offstage.” This is some of the finest and most complete acting I have seen by an actor.
Costume designer Moria Sine Clinton’s hipster aesthetic hits the right notes, and Jeff Colangelo’s fight choreography is exciting, if a bit strange with the pool cue swordplay.
The end becomes the beginning in this play, and the beginning is the end. It is perpetual loop of bad decisions, loss, and heartache. The only solace is that Ferrell and company have interlaced the best parts of theater and film to present a vision that is exceptional and full of insight. Not easy to do with a play supposedly so well-known.