Remixing Shakespeare

Brown/Trinity Rep MFA's 'Romeo and Juliet'
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  May 13, 2013

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EARNEST AND THOUGHTFUL Kendall and Anderson. [Photo by Mark Turek]

Somewhere in the caves of France there is probably an undiscovered depiction of the earliest version of Romeo and Juliet. Everything in Shakespeare's account, one of his earliest plays, is primal and timeless, from the transporting hope of young love to the tragic loss of love defeated.

Theatergoers tend to lose track of how many times they've seen the star-crossed lovers waltz through their joy and woe, each viewing as pleasantly familiar as a rerun of It's a Wonderful Life. Well, here's a treat. A Brown University/Trinity Rep MFA production (through May 19) gives it a refreshing and delightful new spin.

Directed by Ryan Purcell, the familiar tale takes on a youthful exuberance, and not just because the cast is young. From music to costumes to inserted interludes of dance and mad poetry, this staging is vivacious. What the iconic lovers show us about wide-eyed dreaming has been transformed into a show.

With such touches as wildly striped stockings and colorful band uniform jackets, the costume design by Cait O'Connor establishes characters' personalities before they speak and reminds us of such after they do. Juliet (Leah Anderson) playfully doffs a quirky chicken-head mask and sports a ragamuffin layered look to indicate the vulnerable self-consciousness of the very young (she is "not yet 14," after all). Romeo (Peter Mark Kendall) is in denim. The mercurial Mercutio (Grant Chapman) wears red sneakers and red suspenders over a bare chest throughout.

The stage is bare bones, this theater-in-the-round surrounding an empty space, but Tilly Grimes's design sets the last scene apart as removed floor tiles establish a funeral bier. And just as their outer appearances reflect their inner states of being, the sound design by Broken Chord Collective expresses what the characters are feeling. That makes for a brilliant transition for what usually is a problematic moment in the play: between the beaming afterglow of Romeo after the balcony scene with Juliet and the following one in the cell of Friar Laurence (Brandon J. Vukovic). To Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)," the stage is filled with bouncing revelers joining Romeo in expressing his happiness. Perfect.

Kendall's Romeo is convincingly changeable, by turns earnest and enthusiastic. Anderson takes an interesting approach to Juliet. The young girl is often portrayed as joyful to the point of giddiness, but here she is deeper, thoughtful where the text's lines that supply that opportunity are usually rushed through. Smart interpretation.

Amanda Dolan as Juliet's Nurse, under a flamboyant peach-colored-flower hat, makes intriguing a normally dowdy character we usually take for granted; a hot Nurse, who'da thunk? Chapman's frenetic Mercutio is quite a treat, especially with his main monologue. I was already appreciating his Queen Mab speech, where the character spins out a florid fantasy, as Chapman made entertaining a set piece that has always bored me. But then, toward the end of it, as Mercutio is rambling darkly out-of-control, comes a surprising touch: he recites a long, manic stretch from Allen Ginsberg's Howl, that nihilistic anthem inveighing against "the narcotic haze of capitalism." Yet another moment of ingenuity.

When Juliet is found "dead," another improvement on Shakespeare has simultaneous lamentations of mourners overlapping as they face away from each other. Their distressed confusion and disorientation couldn't be better conveyed.

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