By Carolyn Hayes Harmer
William Shakespeare accomplished one of the most enduring romances, that of “Romeo and Juliet,” in a scant handful of scenes. The two lovers hardly ever interact; the bulk of the play dwells not on the totality of their love, but rather on the mounting impossibility of it, and the desperate decisions that hasten the couple’s tragic deaths.
Often, to stage the play is to tread a fine line between believing this love at first sight to be true, eternal, and impossible to live without, and looking with wiser eyes at the folly and impermanence of hell-bent adolescent immaturity. Yet the current Hilberry Theatre production, under the direction of Blair Anderson, focuses on the pitfalls of hasty decision-making at any age, highlighting the script’s many correlations between rashness and calamity.
Whether this Romeo (Miles Boucher) and this Juliet (Devri Chism) are believable as soul mates seems to be beside the point. In this telling, the pair’s conviction that their love is essential and eternal is enough; what is pushed to the forefront is their reactions to the obstacles to their union, and how quickly and completely they separately make decisions with permanent repercussions. Boucher is affable with his boundless schoolboy incredulity, galloping away with good fortune and misfortune alike. As Juliet, Chism strikes a more contemplative note, exuding earnestness as she carefully, monochromatically traces each train of thought to its logical foregone conclusion. Because the two are utterly like-minded in their desire to be together forever, no matter what the cost, the end result is scene work that immediately seizes on its objective and then agitates insistently to achieve it.
A similar affliction plagues much of the populace of Verona, composed of the full Hilberry graduate company, as well as a few undergrad players. From Romeo’s macho, pugnacious friends to Juliet’s domineering, punitive family, the community – especially the feuding Montague and Capulet clans – shares a fondness for spur-of-the-moment decisions that refuse to waver and a drive to enact them as soon as possible. (It stands to reason that these are people who would brawl in the streets armed with machetes, staged percussively by fight choreographer David Sterritt.) With such a core of heightened patter, braying and caterwauling, the show’s primary source of conflict is not found between characters, but in the space between wanting and having.
The influence on youth, immediacy and impulsiveness also follows through to the costume design by Anne Suchyta, which peppers period-feel pieces among flea-market-trendy mismatches and magpie shimmer, as well as sound by Mario Raymond, which uses mournful contemporary recordings and chamber-music pop adaptations to bridge past and present. Scenic design by Tonae Mitsuhashi reimagines the multipurpose Elizabethan stage as a contemporary art installation, whose chief feature is a starscape of suspended light bulbs that extend into the entire theater space. The bulbs’ faint, tinted light changes to color each scene, albeit with apparent disregard for day or night, although the scenic and lighting design (the latter by Heather DeFauw) finally find spectacular harmony in a stunning late tableau.
In a curious reversal, the production’s pressure-cooker atmosphere is starkly offset by the few moments in which cooler heads prevail, and these in turn provide some of the richest moments of the play. Brandy Joe Plambeck’s well-meaning Friar Lawrence is a patiently encouraging confidante, even as he plots to meticulously deploy his young charges as an instrument of peace between the warring families.
Yet the most complex and compelling character is one with no decisions of her own to make: As Juliet’s nurse, Sarah Hawkins Moan pushes comically against the grain, exerting power over higher-status characters simply by making these hurried souls wait for valuable information, which in the world of this play is as torturous as hellfire. In the midst of tragically high personal stakes, the breaths of reason and laughter Moan provides serve as an exquisite counterpoint to the reactionary series of unfortunate events that presage so many avoidable fates.
In this “Romeo and Juliet,” Anderson and company set out to characterize young love with a contemporary edge. Indeed, the production does have an instant-gratification focus reminiscent of youth, but as seen from a distance. The viewer will not be swept away by starry-eyed romance, but rather will bear sad witness to a runaway train propelled on the steam of snap decisions.
‘Romeo and Juliet’
4743 Cass Ave., Detroit
2 p.m. Wednesday. Oct. 29 (postshow talkback)
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 30 (preshow discussion), Dec. 11
8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 31, Dec. 12
2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25, Dec. 13
8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25, Nov. 1, Dec. 13
2 hours, 15 minutes