Hansol Jung, on the heels of much praise for Wolf Play, a bittersweet tale of a child’s under-the-table adoption, has taken on the Bard in what is referred to as a “modern verse translation” of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Not to be confused with the infamous internet pariah, NoSweatShakespeare, which translates the Shakespeare text into an easy-to-read teen novel, Jung focuses on the intimate nature of the text and drawing out as much humor as possible in what is one of the most beloved tragedies of the Shakespeare canon.
Romeo and Juliet has always been that cautionary tale of young love…really, really young love when you consider much is made of preparing Juliet for suitors at not-quite 14 years of age. For theatre purposes, Romeo and Juliet have always been wise beyond their years, despite the fact that their head-over-heels innocent meeting becomes a romance to measure all future love scenes by. The greatest compliment that can be made is for more than 400 years audiences of the play still suspend their reality and hope for that happy ending that never comes.
In addition to making the language truly accessible with a mix of the Shakespeare speeches we’ve come to know and love and modern verse that doesn’t take much away from the traditional experience of the vast language of Shakespeare, we are immersed in the space from the very moment we enter the theatre. We are asked to take sides…literally. A coat hanger with a makeshift sign that says “Pick Side” greets you at the entrance. Are you a Montague or are you a Capulet? The stage is a wooden circle with the audience sitting on either side. It is fitted with trapdoors in its floor for characters to come out of or exit into, while one particular trap is fitted with a sound system/sound looping machine that actors manipulate. The two ends of the playing space are taken up by sentry towers from which actors take turns at being spotlight monitors. The workspace on the floor of the sentry towers is where the actors who are often double-cast, or even triple-cast, change into their costumes for their next role, or sit in theater seats and watch the action like the rest of us.
And the production is loaded with action. Except for the tender love scenes, the play moves at almost breakneck speed. Where most modern productions of Shakespeare tend toward languor, this Romeo & Juliet, skillfully directed by the playwright and her co-director Dustin Wills, fills the moments that traditionally let the mind wander. A couple of back-to-back scenes that inform the audience, but with virtually the same content, are now played simultaneously. This makes the audience work more industriously to listen and separate out the conversations and Hansol Jung’s contemporary take on Shakespeare’s text make it that much easier to accomplish.
The ingenious set of Junghyun Georgia Lee provides a treasure trove that is a constant source of props for each scene. Not to be outdone by inanimate objects, even actors seem to materialize from entryways we didn’t realize even existed. Some entrances from underneath the circular stage suggest necessary crawling on their bellies right out of military maneuvers, so kudos to this very limber and athletic cast! Mariko Ohigashi’s costume design is sometimes grand period-driven and other times contemporary grunge. Very often it veers toward the practical as in the case of actors’ double-cast roles appearing split seconds after each other, as is the case when Daniel Liu as Lady Capulet is in conversation with himself as Peter, the servant; the skirt goes to the floor around his ankles as Peter, and back up to his waist as Lady Capulet. Ohigashi’s sense of humor pervades the production: Mia Katigbak as the Prince is outfitted like Queen Elizabeth with a traditional Barbour coat and hat and handbag, but one should keep looking down, as her shoes look like a cross between Uggs and Timberlands.
Joey Moro’s lighting design is very sensitive to the changes in mood in each scene. Just when you think you’ve seen your best balcony scene ever many years ago, Moro creates beauty out of a planted mirrored ball with dim light reflecting off of it to indicate stars behind Juliet. Night has been brought indoors and the stars exist just to light up Juliet as Romeo looks on. It is a stunning achievement considering the limits of the playing space. Later, in the crypt, the characters are making their way through darkness with flashlights, but that light is not bright…the setting is as if the battery is almost dead. Each character brings his or her own amount of light and shadow to add to the somber crypt in this tragic ending of the play.
Megumi Katayama’s sound design is quite inventive. Juliet gets a very recognizable motif to underscore her passionate monologues – the exquisite mezzo aria of seduction from Saint-Saëns’Samson et Dalila, “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix,” which translates to “My heart opens itself to your voice.” This is certainly indicative of how Juliet feels about Romeo, but it comes off as slightly hypocritical, and even somewhat sardonic, as sung by Dalila…an interesting choice for a motif emotionally as long as one doesn’t pay too much attention to the original source. Romeo and Juliet in bed have their own underscoring going on, courtesy of the actors playing Mercutio and Tybalt manipulating the sound looping machine attached to the underside of one of the stage trap doors. The original music by Brian Quijada is such a felicitous companion to this production, yet it’s easy to imagine this music standing on its own as well. One effect that is as moving as it is chilling is the persistent sound of a heartbeat during the intimate marriage scene.
The acting throughout this cast is exemplary. Short of having two very savvy 13-year-olds to play the complexities of Romeo and Juliet, Major Curda and Dorcas Leung are so right for these roles. Their vivid portrayals remind one of American Ballet Theatre’s classic pairing of Xiomara Reyes and Herman Cornejo though well into their 30s creating that suspension of disbelief they were impassioned and impressionable young teens. Curdas and Leung’s naiveté and innocence has such an honest tinge of have-lived-but-never-loved-until-now that we are with them for the journey from the get-go. Their optimism and then their heartache are ours as well. Curda with his guitar serenade is a fine lighthearted moment and Leung in her own take on the Saint-Saëns’ aria is an alluring soprano variation.
Mia Katigbak as the Nurse, and also the Prince, is a jewel of this production. Everything she does is so heartfelt, bringing that deeply pained caregiver quality to a role that is so central to the play. Her scene after making contact with Romeo, circling the perimeter of the stage dogged by Juliet wanting to know every detail of their interaction, is played as a subtle wink to the audience, letting us know there is a playful quality to her as well. Brian Lee Huynh gives us a haunting tough love scene as Capulet in his verbal beat-down of Juliet. The devoted father pushed by his own expectations and plans for his daughter is often played as a heavy, but Huynh brings a touching sensitivity to that scene as well as his interactions with Paris. He does have an uproarious moment that comes early on: wearing a cardboard sign that says Montague on one side and Capulet on the other, he plays both roles simultaneously as they engage in battle.
Rob Kellog has the unenviable double-casting of Paris and Tybalt, but he imbues both roles with an innate humaneness so that his Tybalt’s concern for cousin Juliet is deep and brotherly rather than an overbearing power trip, and his profoundly respectful Paris ends up being utterly heartbreaking in the crypt scene. Purva Bedi’s Friar Laurence is quite fatherly and sincere, especially witnessed in her “There is your happy” speech. The friar’s emotional investment in the marriage of Romeo and Juliet is the lodestar to the path of the play and Bedi provides the love and sincerity needed. Ironically, she is double-cast as the Apothecary that provides Romeo with his poison, but even there she exhibits the requisite conscience. Zion Jang as Benvolio is the voice of reason when everyone else on stage is hotheaded, yet Jang lets us feel acutely the underlying passion and heart beneath being the peacekeeper.
Jose Gamo as Mercutio is exciting to watch. A very physical performer, adept at pratfalls and swordplay, Gamo gives an often sensually as well as sexually heightened performance. Of the “kids,” he is clearly the most sexually mature of his group, flirting comfortably with both genders and not stopping until he gets a response that satisfies him. A downstage crotch grab with Tybalt would be awkward in another actor’s repertoire, but Gamo makes this titillating moment sit well within the “lack of boundaries” of Mercutio. Can equally over-the-top performances of Puck or Caliban be in his future? One can only hope.
Another superlative defying performance comes from Daniel Liu, double-cast as Peter the servant and Lady Capulet. His comic timing is flawless. As mentioned earlier, when both of his characters have a scene together, the changes in costume and demeanor are lightning quick. His serious scenes as Lady Capulet, either with Juliet as she attempts a mother’s “birds and the bees” conversation or with Lord Capulet as they discuss the offer of proposal from Paris are vivid moments where we lose sight of the fact this is a man playing Lady Capulet. Peter is played for laughs – when Capulet sends him out into the streets of Verona with the list of guests to invite for Juliet’s party, the fact that Peter cannot read becomes gradually apparent.
Another hilarious moment comes where you least expect it: upon the Capulets discovering Juliet dead (but not really, as she has ingested a potion that feigns death), musicians that had been hired for the wedding of Paris and Juliet are awaiting direction from someone in charge. Peter takes over, “Musicians, O musicians, ‘Purple Rain! ‘Purple rain!” O, I’ll die if you don’t play ‘Purple Rain,” as he bursts into karaoke without accompaniment. A tour de force, followed by the musician’s remark, “Interesting guy.” And that he is! This is another career to watch.
This “translation” of Romeo and Juliet was written as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On Shakespeare “translations” of the thirty-nine Shakespeare plays. Play On Shakespeare’s intention is to present the Shakespeare canon in accessible language without losing the beauty of Shakespeare’s verse or intentions, enlisting the talents of a diverse group of contemporary playwrights and dramaturgs from variede backgrounds.
Romeo & Juliet (through June 3, 2023)
NAATCO in partnership with Two River Theater
Lynn F. Angelson Theater, 136 East 13th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.ovationtix.com
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes including one intermission