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BWW Review: Lupita Nyong'o and Juan Castano Are Bilingual Lovers in The Public's Radio Drama ROMEO Y JULIETA

Saheem Ali and Ricardo Pérez González set Shakespeare's tragedy in an English and Spanish speaking community.

Back in the 1950s, when the fledgling New York Shakespeare Festival began offering free summer productions, one of Joseph Papp's revolutionary concepts was to cast William Shakespeare's plays with acting ensembles that looked and sounded like the population of New York City; not only committing the company to ethnically diverse casting, but encouraging actors to use their everyday accents.

BWW Review: Lupita Nyong'o and Juan Castano Are Bilingual Lovers in The Public's Radio Drama ROMEO Y JULIETA
Production illustration by Erick Dávila

The visuals may be left to the listener's imagination in The Public Theater's new audio play ROMEO Y JULIETA (offered for free listening at The Public Theater's website through March 18, 2022) but what lands on the ear takes Papp's concept a bit further.

Working from Alfredo Michel Modenessi's translation, director Saheem Ali has partnered with playwright Ricardo Pérez González to adapt The Bard's ROMEO AND JULIET into a drama set in a bilingual community.

That's not to say that the feuding Montague and Capulet families are separated by different languages, but instead, all characters share the commonality of speaking both Elizabethan English and various dialects of Spanish.

As explained by Ali, who grew up speaking both English and Swahili, there is no specific time and place determined in this rendering, though much of the soundscape provided by designers Bray Poor and Jessica Paz and composer Michael Thurber (utilizing a brass/reed trio) will certainly remind many New Yorkers of our multilingual home.

BWW Review: Lupita Nyong'o and Juan Castano Are Bilingual Lovers in The Public's Radio Drama ROMEO Y JULIETA
Production illustration by Erick Dávila

"I wanted to embrace different kinds of Spanish," says Ali, allowing those in the know to determine qualities about the different characters - personal identity, history, sense of family - based on how they speak the language.

Admittedly, while listening to the production, this reviewer came to realize that his status as a unilingual speaker of American English (Upper West Side dialect) who fared rather poorly in his high school Spanish classes would make him less than an ideal candidate to opine on the effectiveness of Lupita Nyong'o (Julieta), Juan Castano (Romeo) and their castmates in projecting fresh nuances in the classic tragedy that pits the passion of learned hatred against the passion of adolescent lust, even with the bilingual script provided on The Public's website.

But while ROMEO Y JULIETA may be especially relatable for Spanish speakers living bilingually in America, there is certainly great value for those like this reviewer in immersing oneself into the emotional aesthetics of this finely-realized production that emphasizes how a diversity of cultures can strengthen, rather than divide, our communities.


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From This Author Michael Dale