Just about every adult knows the story of William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Romeo and Juliet: two kids from opposing families fall in love, get married in secret, and then they both commit suicide due to the overwhelming grief from a simple miscommunication. The story has been told countless times, and so many directors fail to add anything fresh to the well-known tale. Thankfully, the director of the Guild Hall production, Josh Gladstone, has carefully crafted a wonderfully bizarre reimagining, with surprises around every turn.
From the moment the play begins, Gladstone wants it to be abundantly clear that this will not be a run-of-the-mill adaption. He does this with a wild musical number more akin to School of Rock than Shakespeare, with large, foam cubes being tossed through the aisles, a choreographed dance on stage, graffitied walls and flashing strobe lights.
Those walls are by far the most striking design choice. Projections fill the entire room: on the left and right walls, as well as three small screens above the stage. The purpose of these illusions is twofold. First, they establish the setting of specific scenes, with images such as a graveyard or forest projected onto the walls.
The second, and more inventive, purpose is to establish the tone of key scenes with images related to important plot points, a helpful cheat sheet for those who don’t fully understand 16th century English. In one scene, projections of hearts flutter around the room as Juliet and Friar Lawrence devise the plan to fake her death, so she and Romeo can run away together; but as soon as she drinks the sleeping potion, the hearts turn to skeletons signifying her fate.
The scene that really pushes this trick to its limit is the graveyard dance sequence, which shows clips of a morbid Bimbo the Dog cartoon while characters zombie-walk toward the stage in all black, as if emerging from a haunted circus. The whole scene is so beautifully strange and out-of-place that it warrants a second viewing just to wrap one’s head around it.
Another interesting design choice is the lack of a set. There are the occasional set pieces, but for the most part, characters run around the entire theater unhindered. This places audience members in the heart of Verona, unsure of where the next bit of action will take place. The uncertainty is thrilling, but occasionally the action lingers in the back of the room, resulting in an audience full of contortionists.
Despite the modern elements, this adaption has left Shakespeare’s intricate English virtually untouched, and even the youngest actors speak it like their native tongue. The short-lived romance that Romeo (Alexander Might) and Juliet (Olivia de Salvo) share is beautifully acted out with the appropriate level of teenage hormones and melodrama. Their young naivety and all-consuming passion for each other is tactically juxtaposed by their more mature foils, such as Juliet’s father Lord Capulet (Gladstone), who gives an intensely powerful performance. Gladstone had to quickly step in when cast member Robert Anthony injured his knee seven weeks into rehearsals.
Many of the character portrayals were enjoyably over-the-top, including the flamboyant Peter (Frankie Bademci), the endearingly frantic nurse (Kate Mueth) and the raunchy Mercutio (Charlie Westfal). Westfal’s charisma manages to steal the attention of every scene he’s in, and his charms are enhanced when the delightful Benvolio (Quinn Jackson) is alongside him. Might and de Salvo may be the show’s romantic focus, but the adorable chemistry between Westfal and Jackson make them a close second.
Ultimately, this play is a must-see for Romeo and Juliet fans and novices alike. For those who have already seen dozens of renditions, see this one anyway; Gladstone’s design choices create such a surreal spectacle that it has to be seen to be believed.
Romeo and Juliet will be performed at Guild Hall through March 25. For tickets, visit guildhall.org.