Blood has been spilt in the houses of Capulet and Montague. Secret vows have been exchanged. Two teenagers from enemy lineages have met and fallen in love and changed the course of their lives and families’ futures.
The story of Romeo and Juliet is well known and well adapted, from the musical rendition of West Side Story, to the 1996 film adaptation starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio. Most high school students study the play in class and, even though other Shakespearean tragedies receive more scholarly attention, it is what first comes to mind when most people hear the name Shakespeare.
To interpret “Romeo and Juliet” is to face the Goliath of the theater world, drama’s biggest household name, and hit it squarely between the eyes. Shana Cooper, director of this season’s Yale Repertory Theatre production, has done just that.
Cast in a modern day Verona of businessmen, fancy ladies and young gangsters, reeling with violence, Cooper’s version is bawdier than most. Mercutio’s urging, “If love be rough with you, be rough with love” rings true in this city as he makes suggestive hip gyrations in a hot pink mesh unitard and black shimmering hot pants.
Although Cooper’s is by no means a traditional interpretation of the play, it is perhaps truer to Shakespeare’s vision of a “Romeo and Juliet” that shocks its audience with crass jokes and public tussles just as much as it woos them with romantic embraces. Its sixteenth century customs and conventions appear tame to us today but, in this Rep production, an emphasis on body language and strong visual cues restores the sense of profanity.
This translates into more than violence — the performance is also extremely funny. In particular, John Patrick Doherty DRA ’10 plays a very comedic Mercutio — hilariously vulgar, fluctuating between mocking falsetto and terrifying bellow — and Seamus Mulcahy DRA ’12 plays a very endearing Peter, the Capulets’ young servant, who frantically prepares for the family’s ball, losing papers, scatterbrained, inhaler and all.
Juliet (Irene Sofia Lucio DRA ’11) first appears on stage sunbathing in the background, as Romeo (Joseph Parks DRA ’08), unaware, whines to Benvolio (Chris Henry DRA ’12) of his love for Rosaline (Sarah Sokolovic ’11). She stretches her legs, flexes her toes and wiggles her bottom wasting away the golden hours examining wildflowers in the hot Italian sun. From this initial glance, she is childish, bubbly, quirky — for once, a girl of fourteen as we know her to be, and funny at that.
The name Romeo speaks of romance, the name Juliet of a balcony in Verona. The two together speak of “star-crossed lovers,” too-young deaths and vials of poison.
Our Juliet might not be the most obvious romantic paradigm. In and out of her lover’s presence, she does a great deal of giggling and goofing around. But, then again, neither is our Romeo. When the two meet, he is wearing a white gorilla costume and a pair of red Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Somehow, the pair manages to combine their goofiness with a palpable and plausible attraction. As they rush towards their final meeting, the audience dutifully awaits the paramours’ adieus.
No fate in this theatrical stalwart remains unsealed; no kiss untimed; no death died for the first time. Yet one questions: If Juliet had revived just a few moments earlier, had Romeo not been so hasty in rushing to join her eternal sleep, had Friar Laurence’s letter arrived in Mantua on time…
This is the beauty of a great production of Romeo and Juliet: no matter how familiar its verses, the unfortunate demise of the young newlyweds is as inevitable and heart wrenching as ever. Cooper’s interpretation exhales new life out of the half-millenium old tragedy while keeping Shakespeare’s ethos in the same breath.
Romeo and Juliet will be showing at the University Theatre through April 2nd.