Love and death are in abundance in any production of Romeo and Juliet. Anyone who’s attended high school knows how the play ends; it’s the playing of the tale that makes or breaks a production, as with many a Shakespeare play.
Set in Verona, this production, as staged by Shana Cooper, makes full use of the play’s seaside setting. The stage is mostly taken up by a two-tiered rectangular wooden structure not unlike the piers at Brighton, open enough to let in light but still immensely confining.
As this production begins, the stage is immediately set. Beginning with a West Side Story-style rumble, it’s evident that the Capulets and the Montagues are at war and that, for the purposes of this production, Verona isn’t entirely unlike The O.C., featuring modern costumes, pill-popping ladies, and plenty of brooding.
Pior to the start of the show, an announcement informs audiences that this production is supported by the Shakespeare for a New Generation initative, a program funded by the National Endowment for the Arts that seeks to introduce a new generation to theatre. There were plenty of school-age audience members at the performance I attended, and most seemed to relate well to the production, which takes an irreverently faithful approach to the text.
Romeo, our hero, is a brooding, messy-haired youth, blustery and mostly amiable as portrayed by Joseph Parks. Juliet, clad for much of the play in T-shirt, sandals, and shorts, is full of doubt as her family begins putting pressure on her to suppress her affections for Romeo in favor of the wealthy Paris.
The problem with the production is a whole is that our central pair is, in essence, ill-cast. As Romeo, Parks, though occasionally appealing, has more panache than substance. As Juliet, Irene Sofia Lucio reads nearly two decades older than her stated age of 13, lessening many of the implications of her impending arranged marriage.
Most lively amongst an otherwise likeable cast are Cynthia Mace, who makes a formidable Nurse, and John Patrick Doherty, whose slightly misdirected Mercutio brings a sense of liveliness to the proceedings. Henry Stram also shines as Friar Laurence, delivering some of the final fateful moments of the play with the proper degree of gravitas.
What we’re left with is a fairly faithful presentation of one of Shakespeare’s most romantic plays, albeit one of his most tragic. There are some standout moments, as when Romeo, wearing a half-flung-off white gorilla suit to the costume ball, faces his new love, Juliet, each of them skirted and eager. There are also moments of consternation, as when the recently-deceased Juliet is covered with dirt only to be uncovered by her ain true love or when Romeo, racing to find Juliet, is left to run in place through the rain for entirely too long for comfort.
Overall, the production is a mixed bag; moment to moment there are highs and lows. Judged based on its consistency, this production primarily fails. Throughout, however, there are redeeming glimmers of hope enough to make the play bearable, particularly for first-time viewers.