“Romeo and Juliet,” Yale Repertory Theatre University Theater
Shakespeare is fair game, once again. This time he takes a beating at Yale Rep’s University Theatre. This “Romeo and Juliet” is touted as highly innovative, according to program and press notes. But innovative in what sense? Granted director Shana Cooper dresses her cast in modern clothes and replaces many passages with street brawls. But to what purpose? Do these changes tell the story, move the audience?
It takes chutzpah (nerve) to tinker with Shakespearean texts, as happens here. For example, the play’s opening normally takes three full pages of text to reach Romeo’s lament over Rosalind. In this version, Romeo and his pal Benvolio get to it right away. (And in truth, such cuts make for a fast-paced production.)
The real strength of the production, in fact, lies in its full company scenes—where action replaces dialogue. Fortunately for Cooper and her troop, the show has been mounted on Yale Rep’s cavernous stage at the University Theatre. The company has plenty of room to turn its large numbers into veritable ballets (thanks to choreographer Sean Curran).
Romeo and his buddies frequently horse around. They joke with each other, chin themselves on parallel bars, trade punches and are constantly in motion. It is a gang of boys on the loose, skirting the edge of violence. The strong original music (Gina Leishman) and effective background sounds (Jennifer Lynn Jackson) evoke Broadway, and, briefly, “West Side Story” comes to mind. But more to the point these scenes create a particular and appropriate world. This could be Shakespeare’s Verona—or a gang of boys anywhere. (I recall my own high school days, observing boys who traveled in packs and created just such scenes.)
On the negative side, alas, are the key performances. Irene Sofia Lucio, in the role of Juliet, manages to garble her lines, more often than not. But, when she is embroiled in warm exchanges with her Nurse (solidly portrayed by Cynthia Mace), the show comes to life. And her very physical bedroom scene with Romeo works well, too. Joseph Parks, a talented actor, gives a good account of himself as Romeo, though he hardly looks the Romeo we all envision. Yet his every line vibrates with emotion. And in supporting roles, there are several redeeming performances—specifically, Andy Murray and Christina Rouner as Lord and Lady Capulet and Chris Henry as Benvolio.
Other Cooper attempts at innovation are puzzling. Why, in the final tomb scene, in the immaculate tomb of the Capulets, is dirt scattered across Juliet’s coffin? Is this a Jewish funeral or what? And why the choice of strange costumes (courtesy of Leon Dobkowski)? For the Capulets’ masked ball, where the lovers first meet, Romeo is decked out in a furry white gorilla outfit. And, in other scenes, his mother Lady Montague (Catherine Castellanos) is startlingly dressed in high heels, ankle socks, and a teensy skirt stretched tight over ample hips. All such costume touches serve to turn tragedy into farce. And to what avail?
In summary, this “Romeo and Juliet” disappoints more than it pleases. Innovation for its own sake is never the mark of good theater.
This review appeared in the Conn. Post and on nytheaterscene.com