“Romeo and Juliet” at the Folger Theater:
It is easy to forget about the pile of bodies left behind at the end of William Shakepeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
When the play is discussed or referenced in society today, the focus of the conversation often revolves around the deaths of the titular characters. We romanticize Romeo and Juliet and their “deep passion and love for each other.” What we do not talk about is how the selfish and unintelligent choices of two children result in mountains of emotional grief for two families and the deaths of at least four characters. The Folger Theater’s recent production of “Romeo and Juliet” did not allow the young lovers’ choices to go overlooked or unjudged. Romeo and Juliet are put on trial upon the Folger’s stage, with the other characters and the audience to act as their jury.
This is not to say the Folger wheel out the gallows before the trial begins. Part of director Aaron Posner’s vision for the show is for it to expose the all the rough edges of Shakespeare’s Verona. Posner sees Romeo and Juliet as products of a violent and wicked Verona, where “power and position matter far more than they should.” His incredible cast of actors certainly brought this vision into reality right before the audience’s eyes. Lord Capulet (Shannon Koob) is a two-faced tyrant, who all too well embodies the image of the city. Koob’s Capulet can turn from jovial and charming to red-faced and violent at the drop of a hat (though it is implied this is due to the amount he drinks). This is the nature of Posner’s Verona; it is a place where rage is barely contained and violence can spring forth any moment. As it was hard for Jekyll and Hyde to thrive together, it is difficult for love to truly blossom in such a world.
Part of this aesthetic for Verona, and what allows Posner to connect it back to 2013, is the ambiguity of the costume’s time period. The outfits range from the more traditionally Shakespearian clothes worn by Mercutio to Juliet’s 21st century bohemian – better known as “hipster” – threads. Posner weaves threads between Shakespeare’s Verona and our time, heightening the “timelessness” of the story as well as asking the question “Is this set 400 years ago or today?”
Indeed, some of the great joys of Posner’s directing are the moments that give the characters of “Romeo and Juliet” moments of real humanity. As Benvolio (Aaron Bliden), Mercutio (Rex Daughtery) and Romeo (Michael Goldsmith) approach the Capulet’s ball, they converse in the same manner one might expect teenage boys today do. They make sexual innuendos, mock Romeo’s pinning, and the great possibilities the night holds. Daughtery’s Mercutio steals the spotlight whenever he enters the stage: at first through his great wit and humor, later with his grave seriousness. Mercutio’s last moments embody the spirit of Verona, as he turns from making jokes about Romeo finding him “a grave man” to cursing the Montagues and Capulets with all the venom he can muster. Daughtery’s last moments with the character are incredibly moving, and deserve praise as a feat of acting.
So this is the world that Romeo (Goldsmith) and Juliet (Erin Weaver) inhabit. The two actors’ youth suits the intended ages of both characters, and allows for better chastisement later. When the two are not fervently entwined with the other, which happens quite a bit throughout the second and third acts, the actors bring standard-yet-praiseworthy interpretations of the characters. Goldsmith’s Romeo is a portrait of the classic adolescent male. He tries to be macho, is prone to fits of intense emotion, and the object of his affection changes like the weather.
Of the pair, Weaver’s Juliet is often the more entertaining to watch onstage. Weaver nails the activation of the little moments in Juliet’s dialogue, allowing her to convey the true adolescent nature of the character. At other times, she is a master of conveying the psychological state of the character through face alone. The hopelessness at Romeo’s departure, the fear when her father threatens to disown her, and many other moments are expressed more succinctly by Weaver’s face than words ever could.
While Posner gives Romeo and Juliet their fair trial, at times we can feel his disapproval in threads of the show. Indeed the moments of passion between the pair of lovers had a feel of hyperbole to a point. These great displays of passion appeared to serve poignancy of their fall.
At the beginning of the end, when Juliet and the Friar concoct her plan to escape with Romeo, the lovers’ true jury appears: the dead. Tybalt and Mercutio appear specter-like on the platform above the stage, silently and intently passing judgment. As the events of Act V unfold, the newly dead rise to join them on their perch. Lady Montague (suicide by poison due to grief) and Paris (slain by Romeo) share the duty of passing unspoken judgment on the young, selfish lovers. Their eyes tell the story: all share the same deep content and near hatred for the pair. Juliet’s pitying moans of death do not faze the spirits: there is no mercy here for the young and foolish. Posner erects a silent monument to Romeo and Juliet’s sins: he demands that we look at how grave the consequences of their selfish choices are. Romeo and Juliet’s blind passion for each is not worth the lives that they obliterate around them. Posner reminds us that the tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet” is not reserved for the young lovers alone, but all who were affected by their foolish choices.
Originally published on this site in 2013