Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Top 10 Reasons to See Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie

Or: The Most Millenial Review of the Most OG Millennial Play, Ever.


Photo by Jenny Graham

Who knew Romeo and Juliet could be funny?

I really mean it; WHO KNEW?

Certainly not me. I'll be the first to say that performances of Shakespeare tend to bore me to tears with productions that are far too reverent, slow, and dry; that are filled with emphatic, unnecessary pauses; and tend to feature audiences so quiet (and constrained) that you could could hear a pin drop. They're not fun. Shakespeare in general (at least for the majority of productions I've seen in my lifetime - Ten Thousand Things excluded) tends not to be fun, and it can really turn me off.

Knowing this, you can imagine my jubilation at attending Romeo and Juliet at the Guthrie last night, a spectacular production that billows fresh, vivacious life into this overdone play and opened my eyes to new facets of the show that I'd not seen before, despite how many times I've seen it.

I'm not going to recap the plot of Romeo and Juliet here; I think by now we have all seen the show (or some iteration of it) aplenty. I do want to focus this piece on all the ways this production stands out from others I've seen with a list of my top 10 favorite elements. One request of the Guthrie before I start: can you please, please add some Tweet seats for this (and future) shows? I was DYING for a live tweet of this modern adaptation and I really think it could enhance the engagement, especially for younger audiences. Please consider it! 

And without further adieu, here are the top 10 reasons to see Romeo and Juliet:


Photo by Jenny Graham


1. The Nurse. Typically I'm a little over the servant and supporting roles in plays like this; their speeches feel unnecessary, overlong, and boring. Thankfully, none of these adjectives describe Candace Barrett Birk, the ingenious woman playing the Nurse here. Birk is the ultimate town gossip, deliciously sharing salacious tidbits of her mind and leaving us hanging on her every word. It's the OG Real Housewives word-of-mouth style, and it feels delightfully naughty to eat up every tidbit Birk drops. She's absolutely marvelous, and you'll adore her portrayal.

Photo by Jenny Graham

2. Straight Up Street Swagger. It should be pretty well established by now that the men of the Capulet and Montague gangs are all big mouth, dick swinging showoffs whose incessant meddling in things that are not their business is the whole reason this mess of a plot is pushed into action in the first place. Their incessant bawdiness is perfectly played up here with a punk rock wardrobe and robust performances from Lamar Jefferson and Kelsey Didion, who play Benvolio and Mercutio, respectively. Jefferson is utterly charming as Benvolio, and it's easy to see how he can talk Romeo (or pretty much anyone) into anything. He explodes into the shining heart of every ensemble performance, and it's thoroughly engaging. Didion is surprising as Mercutio, bringing a sinful delight to each of her lewd lines. Her casting is an inspired choice, and Mercutio's braggadocio bears a whole new meaning when played by the ballsiest woman in the game. Stan Demidoff is excellent as the quietly evil Tybalt, clearly relishing playing the man we all love to hate. This is the definition of a Mötley Crüe (in every sense of that phrase - band included), and it really works. 

Photo by Jenny Graham

3. The Wardrobe. I often relish the Guthrie's costuming, and this is no different. The gang's aesthetic is somewhere between The GodfatherThe Matrix, Green Day and the Hobbit, which sounds bizarre but really works against the set's pale wash.The entire cast is swathed in shades of black, white and grey, literally leaving the play's heavy handed morality in your face at all times. Small touches, such as a shirt cut just low enough to reveal a giant chest tattoo, or an exquisitely bedazzled capelet for a ball scene, push these looks over the top. Each costume is exquisitely tailored and imbues a Milanese precision to the characters, and I can safely say that I wish I owned every piece of this wardrobe (even the men's duds, which are just as finely crafted as the women's.) 

4. Diverse Casting. This Romeo and Juliet is chock full of interracial couples, women in men's roles, men displaying stereotypically effeminate qualities, and so much more. I dig it. 

5. Juliet climbs her own damn balcony. 


Photo by Jenny Graham

6. Appropriate Emotional Maturity Levels. In all the brouhaha that typically surrounds Romeo and Juliet, it can be *really* easy to forget that the protagonists are only 15 years old. FIFTEEN. YEARS. OLD. They are immature, naive, impulsive, and completely unprepared for the gigantic life choices they are making. This production never loses sight of this, fully emphasizing the immaturity of Romeo and Juliet while also showing the overwhelming irresponsibility of their elders and the direct role their dysfunction has in the doomed couple's destruction. It clearly cuts the action, and there is no way you will leave this production confused about who did what and why it was wrong. 

Photo by Jenny Graham

7. Ryan-James Hatanaka as Romeo and Kate Eastman as Juliet. These two are perfectly paired and thoroughly embody what Romeo and Juliet is all about. Their charming repartee is equal parts winsome, delightful, heartbreaking, idealistic, naive and bombastic. They are totally adorable and trust: by the end of this, you will be 'shipping them, so hard. Also, they're gorgeous. Never hurts to have a little eye candy, and these two fulfill all your sappy romantic dreams in droves. 

8. Papa Pope in the House. I mean not really, but Scandal fans (shout out to the Shondaverse!) will be *living* for the no bullshit, Joe Morton-as-Papa-Pope truth bombs that James A. Williams expertly drops throughout the play in his role as Friar Lawrence. Is Friar Lawrence an enabler who is directly responsible for the mess in the Capulet tomb at the end of the play? Sure. But you can't say he didn't warn everyone multiple times in multiple ways, and his wisdom stands up today, over 400 years after the show was first performed. 

Photo by Jenny Graham

9. The Set. I know, I know. I wax poetic about almost every Guthrie set I see. I mean, they have one of the biggest budgets in town, so there's definitely an unfair advantage they have when it comes to raw resources. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I am always dying to see what their set team is up to, and this play has an absolutely gorgeous full size castle on a turnstyle that revolves into multiple rooms and views of Verona and Mantua, depending on how it is positioned. The effect is really stunning against the sky wash in the background, and when coupled with thoughtful details like a working fountain in the town square, sturdy vines for climbing Juliet's balcony, and a richly filled closet in Juliet's bedroom, it really knocks your socks off. 

Photo by Jenny Graham

10. It's Relevant. The idea that Shakespeare is timeless is literally the most tired of theater cliches, but it can be easy to forget in dry performances that suck the life out of the scripts, which are hundreds of years old and can always use a little judicious trimming. The Guthrie was clearly unafraid to make some edits here, juxtaposing scenes on top of each other and playing up the modern themes with contemporary deliveries that make many stanzas sound almost like beat boxing. Coupled with very trendy 1990s film references (chiefly Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet and The Matrix), and the ubiquitous plot (which, after all, is really just about gang violence and opposites attract, just about the most universal thing ever), this rendition of Romeo and Juliet could easily stand next to Hamilton in contemporary audiences' esteem if it gets that chance.


Photo by Jenny Graham

If you have some extra time, get thee to the Guthrie and see a stunning rework of an old, comfy fan favorite before it closes on October 28. The cast is clearly having so much fun, and they'll sweep you into their auras posthaste. If you're really clever about it you can see this excellent rendition for only $10 per ticket; click on this link to learn how to do so. For more information or to buy tickets, click on this link