BWW Reviews: Boston Theater Company Stages Wildly Relevant ROMEO AND JULIET
Generally speaking, I think it is very hard to make a Shakespeare piece contemporary. Sure, theatres change the location or the era all the time, but I usually leave feeling like the plot was stretched to fit the new period. I tend to prefer contemporary pieces, so I should be drawn towards new looks at classics, but I more often than not leave feeling apathetic at best. Last night, however, I attended a version of Romeo and Juliet that modernized the piece without losing the relevance, appealed to a very youthful crowd, and found parts of the well worn text that I had not previously noticed. And I did not leave feeling apathetic; rather, I left excited.
Boston Theater Company, a newly established Production Company, just closed their season opener of Romeo and Juliet, which took a modern approach that incorporated political parties, drug abuse, and the harsh eye of the media. The production was in the back room of Club Cafe, which had me wary at first, but turned out to be a really unique and well utilized space. There were hanging bulbs, variously sized disco balls, tables rather than rows of seats, and a fully functioning bar of which the audience took much advantage. The atmosphere felt young, relevant, and sharp. The action took place all over the room, utilizing the stage, platforms, and ledges, keeping those of us watching on our toes.
The entire piece ran about 90 minutes, which means a good deal of the original text was cut, but I actually really enjoyed this adaption. Romeo and Juliet were the only characters true to Shakespeare's original text. Four women (two Democrats, two Republicans) covered the rest of the characters and though they often jumped from one original character to the next (for example, Mercutio and Benvolio's roles were blurred), they had their own distinct characterizations and consistent, developed personalities. The piece also cut out parts that, at this point, are almost extraneous. The story started right at the party where Romeo and Juliet meet, removing the Rosaline plot line entirely, which I felt legitimized the love story even more. And perhaps it loses a point that Shakespeare originally intended, but I found myself more invested in the story when I believed their love was something out of the ordinary.
This production was beautifully directed by Joey Frangieh, who also pieced together this particular adaption. He managed to find parts of the dialogue that were incredibly current and form strong, likable, and believable characters. I think it is very easy for Romeo to be played as a whiny pushover and for Juliet to be perceived as an incredibly weak individual. But Alex Marz's Romeo was clever and relatable and Marge Dunn's Juliet was powerful and sure of herself. These characters were likable, which speaks both to the talent of the actors and the direction of Mr. Frangieh. I also really enjoyed that the supporting characters were all strong females, none of whom were apologizing for being so. This production (which featured an opening act by the very talented and wildly cool all-female a cappella group Pitch Please from Northeastern University) highlighted female empowerment while not being the main subject or preaching, and I really enjoyed that.
The piece incorporated popular club music, use of technology, projections, and music videos that made the whole production feel very current and youthful, so much so that I wanted to dance. My only critiques are that there were admittedly impressive, but completely random moments of singing by the actors, which deviated from how the piece had been going for the majority of the run. And also, the contemporary parallels of politics and drug abuse worked so perfectly except that the suicides seemed a little drastic. Of course, that tends to be the case when Shakespeare is modernized, since communication is generally easier nowadays and there often are more options, but it is worth mentioning. It seemed very clear that Juliet had more options than faking her death (and then actually killing herself).
I will say that although drastic, the ending was effective. Mr. Frangieh made the choice to have Juliet wake up as Romeo was dying, rather than directly after. And again, diehard Shakespeareans may disagree, but I think that made the story all the more devastating. The fact that Romeo realizes his mistake in the final moment of his life makes their tale all the more tragic. That hit me.
Usually I am not one to sing the praises of Shakespearean works, just because I tend to find them a bit outdated or too long. But I must say that I was captivated at every moment in this production. This piece was so accessible, particularly to a younger audience, and I felt as though it made the very well known story relevant once more. I am sorry that it has already closed, as I would have recommended it to all my friends and peers, but I know that audiences can expect a lot of good to come from the Boston Theater Company in the future.