The Guthrie Theater’s take on “Romeo and Juliet” is a delicate balancing act
The Guthrie Theater’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare’s classic tale of two ill-fated lovers, plays with contradictory themes, sometimes at the sake of the audience’s comprehension.
Director Joseph Haj took creative liberties to incorporate modern culture into a still-classical rendition of the show. The servants from the feuding Capulet and Montague families, while fighting with swords on a cobblestone set, are costumed in suits, studded Converse, and a plethora of fake tattoos. The transition music from one scene to the next is a finger-picked mandolin played over aggressive guitar riffs and synth beats. Romeo is dressed like he listens to Drake and reads Bukowski. And Benvolio, played by the charismatic Lamar Jefferson, often beatboxes Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter.
Modern retellings of Shakespeare classics are nothing new. From “West Side Story,” a “Romeo and Juliet” set in New York City, to a movie-version of “Macbeth” set in a World War II bunker, Shakespeare’s themes are applicable across decades. However, by not committing to either a fully modern or fully classic take, each cultural shift yanks the audience out of the story, bringing unnecessary attention to the out-of-place stylistic choices.
Outside of the design elements, the performances in the show are impressive, if unrealistic. The stand-out performance is that of the emotionally dynamic Nurse, played by Candace Barrett Birk. Romeo, played by Ryan-James Hatanaka, and Juliet, played by Kate Eastman, both capture the emotional highs and lows of their characters, although the romance itself is more reminiscent of a middle school crush than never-ending love. The characters are portrayed as passionate, but with enough childish naïveté to capture the youthful and rash decisions that ultimately lead to their demise.
The acting is strong and the story compelling. However, “Romeo and Juliet” at the Guthrie cannot decide if it is a 21st century re-telling or a classic revival for the modern stage. The artistic choices made in terms of costume, technology, and design weaken the overall audience experience of an otherwise impressive show. That being said, bring a pack of tissues.
Romeo and Juliet continues through Oct. 28 at the Guthrie Theater on the Wurtele Thrust Stage. Tickets start at $29.