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Romeo and Juliet

Theatre Review by James Wilson - May 14, 2023

Major Curda and Dorcas Leung
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
"For never was a story of more woe/ Than this of Juliet and her Romeo." Thus concludes one of Shakespeare's best-known and most-performed plays. In the boisterous, gag-filled production presented by NAATCO in partnership with Two River Theater, there are only glimmers of woe in this Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, whereas I often appreciate moments of comic relief while viewing a Shakespearean tragedy, in this version, which boasts a modern verse translation by Hansol Jung, I found myself longing for tragic relief so as to at least periodically feel some empathy for the star-crossed lovers. Alas, those moments are often undercut by more fooling.

The conceit is an interesting one. Under the direction of Jung and Dustin Wills, the play is presented by a small company of nine performers who work together as a tightly knit ensemble. Using techniques familiar to people who have seen productions by Bedlam or Fiasco, the actors assume double and triple roles, provide musical accompaniment (with original music by Brian Quijada), and serve as the show's stagehands.

The set consists of a raised, circular platform in the center of the auditorium, and the audience sits on two sides. The stage is flanked by a temperamental and seemingly makeshift curtain, and the space is filled with found objects, such as a coat stand, bird cage, and an assortment of baskets. (Junghyun Georgia Lee designed the clever set and Joey Moro designed the impressive lighting, which also makes excellent use of portable footlights.) Mariko Ohigashi's costumes playfully mix Elizabethan doublets and petticoats with contemporary street wear and oversized trousers. The effect is akin to watching a band of wandering performers who improvise their story with whatever they have on hand.

There are some fine performances among the scenic bric-a-brac. Major Curda is angelic as the lovesick Romeo and periodically breaks into song while shifting from melancholy to romantic fervor in an instant. (Megumi Katayama designed the sound, which often injects a hip-hop under beat.) As Juliet, Dorcas Leung conveys the heroine's teen petulance while revealing the headstrong young woman that emerges in the lightning fast romance. NAATCO co-founder and theatre treasure Mia Katigbak is a stalwart presence as the Prince and a bawdy and conniving Nurse. Purva Bedi as a baggy-panted Friar Laurence brings some interesting mysticism to the role. Jose Gamo, Brian Lee Huynh, Zion Jang, Rob Kellogg, and Daniel Liu round out the company.

Rather than plumb the emotional depths of the characters, though, the directors and actors all too often overemphasize the physical approach, going for easy gags. For instance, Lady Capulet is played by the actor appearing as the servant Peter (Liu), but the character is also sometimes represented as a coat stand, and in each case bears a handwritten sign identifying her. Rather than teasing with sexualized word play and subtext as he often does, this Mercutio (Gamo) graphically, leaving little to our own dirty imaginations, mimes masturbating. The clowning servants in the play are often cut or minimized, but here they practically hijack the performance. They are reminiscent of (and not in a good way) the Rude Mechanicals performing "Pyramus and Thisbe" from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The production publicizes a new translation by Jung, but there is comparatively very little that is not taken directly from Shakespeare. Sure, the opening includes some contemporary slang, but when Jung updates the Early Modern English, the result is crass rather than illuminating. For instance, in the opening verbal joust between the two young men from the Capulet house, Sampson tells Gregory: "Well they can suck my cum/ and then succumb to my sword." Sigh. And as the play's tragic events unfold, the overwhelming sense of grief is undercut by the wisecracking servants who draw out an unfunny bit about "Purple Rain" with confusing references to The Artist (Formerly Known As Prince),'s song.

For the most part, however, the tweaks to the language are minor and do not improve on the original. For example, when the Nurse describes how she weaned the infant Juliet, the Folger Library version includes the lines: "For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,/ Sitting in the sun under the dovehouse wall." Jung's translation is more comprehensible to modern ears, but is far less poetic: "For I had then laid absinth to my boob,/ Sitting in the sun under the birdhouse wall."

This begs the question, if a playwright replaces some archaic English words with commonly used words and expressions, does that constitute a "translation"? That is, if a writer changes some French words in a passage with other French words, it's still French to me.

In giving the play over to the slapstick comics, I was reminded of Hamlet's Advice to the Players: "And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them." Shakespeare's plays have proven to be remarkably durable and endlessly adaptable, but when one "o'ersteps the modesty of nature," as this production does with aplomb, it is, in the word of the Bard, "villainous."

Romeo and Juliet
Through June 3, 2023
NAATCO in partnership with Two River Theater
Lynn F. Angelson Theater, 136 E 13th Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: