Upon arriving in the park to see the Elm Shakespeare Company’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” the first thing you notice is the giant, multistory villa sitting on the grass. The set (designed by Elizabeth Bolster) is beautiful and incredibly unique — unpainted wood and smooth curves that make it difficult to determine the setting, both temporally and physically. It appears almost bare, a small tapestry and some plants, but when Jamie Burnett’s light design illuminates it, everything glows and the colors flow along the walls like a dream. The costumes, designed by Herin Kaputkin DRA ’19, are also fascinatingly dislocated, encompassing numerous styles from Benvolio’s hoodie to Prince Escalus’ ’80s pants to Montague’s intricately embroidered vest to peasant smocks.
But despite these disparate design elements, the contemporary musical selection and general tone of the play feels like an indie romcom, as if Shakespeare had decided to collaborate with the director of “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.” And while the play remains true to the original text, it feels modern and relatable.
One first gets this sense with the entrance of Romeo (Steven Johnson DRA ’18), who is not so much the dashing young lover as everyone’s kid brother, though perhaps much less annoying. The older-seeming Benvolio (Avery Bargar) just wants to help his little cousin get through life and romance, with the help of his affable, over the top buddy Mercutio (James Udom DRA ’18). And Juliet (Courtney Jamison DRA ’18) is more than just your ordinary manic pixie dreamgirl — she’s an immensely well-rounded protagonist with the anxieties and insecurities and hopes and dreams and heroisms that come with being a teenager; her performance is by far the best in the play.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the party scene, a raucous and hilarious mixture of dance and merriment that feels like prom if prom were fun. And when our two eponymous lovebirds finally meet, the spark between them feels earnest and, while perhaps a bit quick (some dancing between the two would have been nice), it also feels real and genuinely sympathetic.
But as relatable as the play feels, it keeps its darker, tragic components, made all the more visceral by the incredible fight choreography (courtesy of the fight director, Ted Hewlett) that keeps you at the edge of your seat. At the center of this is Tybalt (Claire Warden), a badass, pugnacious woman who can wield a sword as well as any man and isn’t afraid to start an argument. But while she keeps the irascibility of the original character, she retains an emotional depth that’s palpable in the look of grief she gives the dying Mercutio after she lands the fatal blow, and in the way she holds back when battling Romeo. Her performance illuminated one aspect of the play that I’ve never seen before: that all the tragedy and despair was less the result of youthful stupidity and more just bad luck.
While the two lovers are a dynamic pair and hold the play together, other performers shine as well. The Nurse (Gracy Brown) is hilarious but still capable of showing deep, honest pain, and the love she feels for Juliet is as obvious as it is powerful. And the supporting characters of Lady Capulet (Samantha Dena Smith) and Prince Escalus (Tamika Pettway), also a woman in this production, are big presences on stage despite their limited time.
So often “Romeo and Juliet” is thought of as a timeless tale, and so often productions fail to really capitalize on its ability to feel relevant today. In this production, the Elm Shakespeare Company hits the mark and gives us a performance that speaks to the universality of falling in love and making mistakes.
“Romeo and Juliet” is playing until Sept. 3, every evening at 8 p.m. in Edgerton Park.
Zak Rosen | firstname.lastname@example.org