The two star-crossed lovers of Romeo and Juliet receive a flashy and digital extreme makeover in The Folger Theatre’s latest production. Director P.J. Paparelli brings authenticity to Shakespeare’s tragedy; for once, Romeo (Graham Hamilton) and Juliet (Nicole Lowrance) are the whiny, self-centered, melodramatic teens that they’re supposed to be. Combine that with a perfectly cast ensemble and small touches that hit it big, and a centuries-old play has become a modern masterpiece.
From its opening scene, Romeo and Juliet strives to break free from its traditional mold. A beautifully modernized set entwines a spacious house and iron bars, leaving the actors free to utilize every inch of the stage. In fact, the entire theater is part of the set; the actors exit through the center aisle and bring their swordfights to the rafters. The Capulet ball is a dance in darkness where flashlights glimpse masked faces, and a mounted marquee displays the time (“Day 2: Monday dawn”).
Increasing the vivacity of the production are Hamilton and Lowrance, whose breathless portrayals of frustrated and passionate teens bring their characters new life. Juliet is flighty and spontaneous, and her excitement at discovering love is contagious. Romeo is brooding, whiny, and rash – as a 14-year-old boy should be. The pair is adolescent, awkward and genuinely ecstatic; you feel like they are exploring something for the first time, rather than just verbalizing iambic pentameter.
However, the leads are not the only stars. Mercutio (Michael Urie) steals every scene he touches, lighting up the stage with inhuman energy and farce, even while dying. Nurse (Nancy Robinette) is cheery, scatterbrained and perfect, and the dryly hilarious Peter (James Konicek) gets a laugh with every disdainful eye roll. Gene Gillette’s Tybalt, however, falls a bit short of the villain that he aims for, coming across instead as a sullen teenager looking for a fight.
In a production so simultaneously subtle and overstated, it comes as no surprise that its faults follow the same rule. While the fight scenes are beautifully choreographed, their execution can be a bit sloppy. Romeo noticeably stabs the ground while Tybalt screams in agony; afterward, blood spurts from the stage floor – should it have been Tybalt’s back? – and the dead Mercutio appears awfully out of breath. In keeping with the topic of breathing, the actors’ spewing enunciations are impossible to ignore. Normally the occasional emotive spit is easily overlooked, but a steady stream of it from the Prince’s sputtering in Act I to the Nurse’s emotional drenching of the dead Juliet becomes a great distraction by the play’s end.
Although off-putting, these flaws are trivial in the face of the production as a whole. Paparelli presents Romeo and Juliet with such blunt honesty that during the intermission, an audience member remarked, “They’re not star-crossed lovers. They’re stupid kids.”
And they’ve never been better.
Romeo and Juliet runs until Feb. 20 at the Folger Theatre. Call 202-544-7077 for tickets.