Walking into the Huntington Avenue Theatre to take your seat at its current production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, you might be reminded of your middle school field trip to the United Nations. You might also remember the American Repertory Theater’s recent staging of Othello, where TV screens and army barracks aimed to place the tragedy in an overtly modern, political world. Huntington’s take is similar. Rather than the hackneyed stucco wall, wrought-iron balcony and ivy-covered trellis that have graced stagings of Veronas past, Wilson Chin’s scenic design is instead marked by several blinking TV screens, dark marble walls, slim midcentury chairs, and imposing flags. This is not so much a modern-day Verona as it is a glossy, global embassy.
Despite the elaborate set, the political trappings of the show are not what make this Romeo and Juliet stand out. Rather, director Peter DuBois’s witty, inventive blocking and the grace and agility of his ensemble as a whole make this Romeo and Juliet a staging you don’t want to miss. Together, the cast manages to capture the bitter animosity between Romeo and Juliet’s families, the youthful swiftness of Romeo and Juliet’s love, and the ill-fated circumstances and slip-ups that lead to their tragic end while imbuing the show with a new sort of lightness.
DuBois’s production appeals to those who have seen countless iterations of Romeo and Juliet and also to those who might be experiencing it for the first time. In more ways than one, the Huntington’s production pays homage to well-known adaptations that precede it. The costumes (designed by Ilona Somogyi), raucous dance scenes, and general air of tackiness seem influenced by Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film adaptation, Romeo + Juliet. (The use of contemporary pop hits in the background also seems to borrow from Luhrmann’s more recent The Great Gatsby). And when Romeo first spots Juliet from across the dance floor, the scene is straight out of West Side Story—all the other actors fall into a slow-motion sea of swaying hips while the lights dim, the music slows, and a spotlight illuminates Juliet’s white party dress.
Despite these familiar notes, DuBois has found clever, innovative ways to house each of Shakespeare’s scenes, especially those lesser-known ones we tend to forget. Friar Laurence talks to his plants in a Breaking Bad-esque lab. A butler of the Capulet house bumbles around the stage, hilariously talking to pillars and accidentally inviting Romeo and his rowdy friends to the Capulet ball. Stomach-turning fight scenes choreographed by Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet emphasize the brutality of the Capulets and Montagues’ “ancient grudge.”
While Romeo’s (George Hampe) and Juliet’s (Lily Santiago) performances leave nothing wanting, the strength of the more minor character’s performances drive the production, often illuminating lesser-known passages of the play. It is a joy to watch the Friar (Will Lyman) exasperatedly scold Romeo as he whines about his feelings. Or to see the motherly excitement on the nurse’s face (Nancy E. Carroll) as she embraces her Juliet, utterly delighted that she has found such a dashing young suitor. Mercutio, too (a fiery, funny Matthew J. Harris), lights up the stage with his crass jokes and his tragic death. Each of these actors offers stunning, complex portraits. The Huntington’s Romeo and Juliet reminds us that the “star-crossed lovers” do nothing alone. They are part of their families, their friends, their city.