It’s hard to breathe a new life into one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, but the enchanting Romeo and Juliet, co-directed by Aviva Abusch ’18 and William Viederman ’17, does just that. The site-specific piece transforms a short stretch of Hillhouse Avenue into Verona, Italy for an over two hourlong outdoor theater experience.
The Undergraduate Admissions building serves as the Montague home, while the Capulets live next door at 46 Hillhouse Ave., which is the Astronomy Department by day. The lawns and walkways around Steinbech Hall, Luce Hall, and Watson Center become the apothecary, the Capulet mausoleum, Friar Lawrence’s cell and the rest of Verona.
“Who knew Science Hill could be so much fun?” commented audience member Hafsa Abdi ’20 in between scenes.
Wearing masquerade masks, the audience follows Abusch from site to site. Early in the show, during the Capulet’s ball, the actors even serve food to audience members and invite them to dance. The audience is part of the party as Romeo (Oliver Shoulson ’20) and Juliet (Isabel Giovannini ’17) kiss for the first time at the center of the ball — Verona’s equivalent of a Woads DFMO.
Shoulson and Giovannini are utterly infatuated with each other without being insincere. Giovannini is a convincing lovestruck teenager: giddy, surly and more. Shoulson is charming and genuine as he woos her.
Beyond the actors’ talent, the strength of this production is that, unlike in traditional theaters, the scenes seem to begin before the audience arrives and appear to continue after the audience leaves. It’s as if the audience has only just stumbles upon Benvolio (Molly Montgomery ’19) and Mercutio (Will Nixon ’19) looking for Romeo. In fact, the actors often start speaking before most of the audience even arrives to the scene.
In one of the most emotional moments of the play, Juliet weeps after her nurse tells her Romeo has been banished. In most productions, the actress playing Juliet would have to exit, but this show flips the script so the audience must exit, filing past Juliet to get to the next scene. Giovannini’s commitment was astonishing; she never seemed affected as forty people peered at her from mere inches away while passing.
During transitions from scene to scene, the audience passes the characters going about their lives — the nurse washes a dress, two citizens lounge on a bench, Romeo’s friends practice sword fighting. Abusch and Viederman have not only brought the text to life, but also the entire world of the play by imagining more than what Shakespeare wrote.
The only time walking between locations started to feel like more of a nuisance than a magical experience was a portion of the play that alternated between very short scenes in the friar’s cell and the Capulet house, forcing the audience to walk back and forth between the locations in rapid succession. It was clear the audience was tired by this point because most hurried to any sort of makeshift seat — a bike rack, stone tables, a low wall — with a decent view of the action.
But the actors betrayed no such faltering energy. The leads were supported by a very talented ensemble. Blech is delightful as Juliet’s doting and frank nurse. The energy between Nixon and Montgomery as Romeo’s bawdy friends is so palpable the audience might as well be a part of their friend group. Dillon Miller ’18 and Sofia Campoamor ’19 as Lord and Lady Capulet carry themselves with a commendable level of dignity.
The entire cast also deserves kudos for multiple sword-fighting sequences. The audience often scurried away as the actors brandished weapons to avoid being hit. This stage combat felt intense because there was little separation between the actors and the audience. Stage combat has never felt so real.
Neither has the devastation of the lover’s deaths. After they commit suicide, the audience walks past the Montague and Capulets houses, observing the families mourn. The audience contemplates the tragic end to the sound of the sobbing of Lord Montague (the underused Carlos Guanche ’20) echoing all over Hillhouse Avenue. Without a curtain to delineate the end of the story this production asks: What now? What next?