By Sue Merrell
Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou?
Alive and well at Hope Summer Repertory Theatre – and cooler than ever.
From the graffiti plastered set to the ginormous video screen overlooking the all-important balcony to the hoodie-wearing Romeo arriving on skateboard, “Romeo + Juliet” is a passionate, insightful interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy. The Bard himself would applaud.
I wished I had brought along a copy of the text to see what trims, additions and reassignment of lines were made by director Curt L. Tofteland to achieve such an enlightening interpretation. Perhaps it was his work in the Shakespeare Behind Bars program that inspired him to fashion the opening prologue as Friar Lawrence, in prison orange and handcuffs, foreshadowing the tragic love story in an interview with a reporter. Her report, as well as comments by Juliet’s parents, are soon flashed on the Channel 4 News, which interrupts several times during the course of the evening to add commentary.
The video screen also features brief lines of Shakespeare throughout the night as tweets from @bardofavon.
But the high-tech, modern additions are just window dressing. A tragic love story is the center of this tale, and Hope’s romantic couple is hot! Nick Selting looks like a curly-headed Greek God as the idealistic, skate-boarding Romeo. Robed in revealing white, Celeste Rose’s Juliet is wide-eyed innocence incarnate. Sexy without trying. Put them together and sparks fly. They can’t keep their hands – and lips – off of each other. They can barely squeeze in their lines between long, hungry kisses. And yet it isn’t tawdry. It’s as if they’ve just discovered kissing and can’t stop.
The dispute between their families, the Capulets and Montagues, is interpreted as a mafia clash, with Hope’s longtime favorite son Chip DuFord as an open-shirted Lord Capulet in the style of Tony Soprano. A briefcase of cash, and another of cocaine to seal the deal, convinces him to wed his young daughter to the wily Paris.
Drugs, dispensed from a manhole cover in the street, also fuel the young punks’ frequent street fighting, which is very well choreographed and believable. Darnell Pierre Benjamin is excellent as Romeo’s friend Mercutio, capturing his bawdiness and playfulness as he bounces up to audience members telling his tales. Even the fatal fight between Mercutio and Tybalt is presented as a somewhat friendly, foolish contest, so the audience feels the loss when Mercutio is killed. As Shakespeare fans recall, Romeo avenges his friend by killing Tybalt.
The local ruler, Duke Escalus, who’s dressed like a banana republic general, banishes Romeo for his crime. One interesting aspect of Tofteland’s contemporary interpretation is that in spite of all the modern changes, the characters still pronounce the word “banished” with the old English three syllables, presumably to maintain the beat of the verse.
Joseph Byrd is fantastic as Friar Lawrence: playing the accordion and singing Italian love songs, cheering on his young friend Romeo, humorously wedding the anxious love birds, dispensing his secret potion to Juliet and lamenting loudly when they both end up dead. Anita “Jo” Lenhart is also fun as Juliet’s nurse, wearing the required white nurse’s shoes and refusing to take any guff from Romeo’s punk friends.
For about a half hour before the show, the young ensemble members entertain with singing and instrumental music ending with a wonderful, full-cast presentation of “A Time for Us,” a hit song written for the 1969 movie version of “Romeo and Juliet.” Then some of the young punks present a rhyming rap version of usual theater repartee including the warning to turn off cell phones.
Even if you think Shakespeare isn’t your thing, check this out. I (heart) “Romeo + Juliet.”
‘Romeo + Juliet’
Hope Summer Repertory Theatre, DeWitt Theatre, 141 E. 12th St., Holland. 8 p.m. July 13, 18, 23, 26, 31, Aug. 3, 5 and 8. $12-21. 616-395-7890. http://www.Hope.edu/hsrt