A healthy dose of comedy and innocent love brings this classic out of cynicism

By Lianna Matt

Skeptics (and even enthusiasts) of William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” offer it up as one of Shakespeare’s comedies. To be fair to them, any play with teenagers, star-crossed love, sword fights and murder—all within three days—is fast-paced, naive and extreme. The Guthrie Theater embraces that. In director Joseph Haj's adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” on stage Sept. 9-Oct. 28, he plays up the comedy, charges into the emotion and provides enough twists to poke fun at the classic while making the clichés work.

The Guthrie. 2017. Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Jenny Graham.

Juliet, played by Kate Eastman, and Romeo, played by Ryan-James Hatanaka, touch hands the night they meet. Photo by Jenny Graham, courtesy of the Guthrie.

Perhaps the easiest way to put this play into its essence is the famous balcony scene. When we first meet Romeo, played by Ryan-James Hatanaka, he is armed with dramatic epithets, mopey teenager syndrome and a poetry notebook, but in this scene, he is a giddy school boy, jumping up and down to get Juliet’s attention as she gazes out into the night. As silly as his behavior may be, as his eyes light up for Juliet, played by Kate Eastman, the audience’s laughs become tinged with sentimentality for young love. Eastman, for her part, controls the scene, giving an air of attempted maturity that succumbs to love’s thrill and a delightful scene ending.

Obviously, the play doesn't stay light-hearted the whole way through, but the cast balances the mood swings through sheer commitment. Benvolio (Lamar Jefferson) and Mercutio (Kelsey Didion) use plenty of physicality in their jokes so audience members who can’t follow the verse can understand the jeer, and Potpan (Corey Farrell) proves to be an endearing character created by a tweaked script and simple set ups. On the flip side, the script's more sorrowful turns usher in excellent performances from Lord Capulet, played by Andrew Weems, in a tempest’s rage, and from Hatanaka, who transforms from boy to man, his passionate moods anchored by conviction that has finally found a real base.

The Guthrie. 2017. Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Jenny Graham.

The opening fight features Tybalt (Stan Demidoff, left) and Benvolio (Lamar Jefferson, right); Bill McCallum as the Prince of Verona is center, underneath the clock tower. Photo by Jenny Graham, courtesy of the Guthrie.

Haj adds modern breaths throughout the play, but they fit seamlessly after the play's first impressions. Against an uncluttered, rotating set that looks imported from 14th century Verona, courtesy of scenic designer Anna Louizos, the cast trickles in wearing an eclectic but cohesive wardrobe by Jennifer Moeller. First the Prince comes out in a suit; then Capulet servants wear black and gray urban wear. Tybalt, played by Stan Demidof, enters next and eventually proves to have no less than four tattoos. (Although the chest one is a little shiny for real life, his mafia-esque demeanor suggests you shouldn’t bring it up to him.) As Potpan/Farrell hams up the insults to Demidof and the bass-buzzed fight music by Victor Zupanc kicks in, it's official: The play is going to stick with the story but throw in some zest.

There are just a few moments where the play seems a bit overdone—smeared blood on a shirt, a knife raised high—and some actors handle Iambic pentameter better than others. (Cheers to Charity Jones as Lady Montague who makes it effortless and regal, just as the Bard would have wanted.) Still, those can be forgiven easily as the play goes all in and makes you suspend all of your cynical views of young love.


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