Cute but flawed, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet () is more school field trip than grown-up fare. However, that’s still very much a compliment. Updated to the here and now, this is mad teenage love envisioned in neo-Renaissance McMansions, rich-kid dance parties, and earbuds. It is played young, fun, accessible.
Carrying the vibe is Andrew Veenstra’s alpha Romeo, an extrovert raised on pop culture, and Ayana Workman’s Juliet, a super-rich, super-thin, super-sweet girl who surely gets the lead in every play. But if their personas are loud, irrepressible and super-accessible, there is a price to pay: depth.
For starters, if you come expecting to shed a tear for the doomed lovers, you will likely be disappointed. Although death stalks the couple — in their free fall of passion, in the violent hatred between their clans, in Romeo’s impulsive murder of Tybalt — the shadows are lost in their showy exuberance. They are adorably charismatic and very dramatic, but there is far too little space to suggest that quieter place: the dark whirlpool of the young and volatile soul and its pathos.
And there is much to be suggested in such a contemporary production. Teen suicide is a major and growing problem. These tragedies don’t come from nowhere and they don’t happen to “other people’s” kids. Romeo is a young man utterly consumed with love, but he is also so passionate that he is capable of murder. Is killing so far from suicide? Not according to much of the day’s news. Although Veenstra at times gives Romeo a convincing, hollow-eyed despair, these countervailing poles needed to be developed. We require more glimpses into his subterranean world, one which so rapidly allows a descent into suicide.
Similarly, although Workman is charming and her dancer’s training reveals itself in her moves (and there is no doubt that this Juliet would have had dance classes), a real person must at some point emerge. Again, it is the balancing act of accessibility versus depth. Although Workman has a convincing affect of anxious agitation, she is portrayed as highly sensible and often full of joy. How can we believe that this otherwise happy soul can so readily descend into the arms of death? We needed more of her inner life, a sense of the demons that must be waiting to pounce. And they are very much there. As Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet, Judith Lightfoot Clarke is tentative, removed — the McLean housewife surfing alternate waves of booze and valium. She is at great remove from her vibrant, lively daughter. How could Juliet not have been damaged by such a remote mother? So much more could have been suggested of this inadequate bond.
Not helping matters is further unevenness in the ensemble. As Nurse, Juliet’s lifelong nanny, Inga Ballard has plenty of presence, but never quite decides who this woman is. Is she canny and knowing? Loving, but not that bright? Troublemaker or victim? It’s all-of-the-above and in a role this big, it becomes a distraction, as does a delivery that moves between smooth and mechanical. As Friar Laurence, Ron Menzel is intriguing with his urban vibe, but his emotional roller-coaster as he confronts and then consoles Romeo is confusing. Similarly, as Juliet’s father Capulet, Keith Hamilton Cobb is a spectacular presence, but it is very hard to reconcile the gorgeous, lovey father at the mansion party with the completely villainous, uncompromising father who later demands that his “baggage” of a daughter marry Paris.
There are two performances that do make the night: Jimmie “J.J.” Jeter’s Benvolio is utterly convincing as Romeo’s warm and funny young friend. Jeter is a natural — understated and utterly at home with the language. The other star turn arrives in the extraordinary performance of Jeffrey Carlson as the cynical, silver-tongued Mercutio. In 2007, Carlson brought a young and rather self-indulgent Hamlet to STC, but time has served him well. His quirk-filled, slightly menacing Mercutio is the only character to capture the darkness in these rich, young people. He would have made an interesting Romeo.
Thus a mixture of weak and strong. But then again, the real question here is whether a high school or college kid would care. Likely not. In an age in which everyone is a selfie star and a moment on YouTube can lead to celebrity, the larger-than-life personas will resonate clearly and exuberantly with the online generation. More importantly, those who have been “forced” to read the play will be amazed to see how immediate and relevant its interpretation on a stage can be. And those who have yet to read it will be buoyed through the pages by the memory of this lively rendering.
As for grownups? Even if you like your Shakespeare in metaphorical tights and a ruffle, there is something to be said for this gel-cap style. Whatever its ultimate impact, it is, without doubt, easy-to-swallow.
Romeo and Juliet runs to Nov. 6 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th St. NW. Tickets are $44 to $118. Call 202-547-1122 or visit shakespearetheatre.org.
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