By Peter Fiorilla
Driven by an inspired performance from sophomore Jake Burbage as Romeo, All College Theater’s modern interpretation of “Romeo and Juliet” jerked at audiences’ heartstrings during a four-day run at the Don Evans Black Box Theater last week.
This version of “Romeo and Juliet” was nothing if not ambitious, as it juxtaposed Shakespearean tragedy with contemporary humor — a twist which felt natural and added to the experience.
The tragic undertones were established from the onset through the grisly, black-and-white checkerboard looming in the back of the Theater. Red roses pinned to the board highlighted the central theme of star-crossed lovers, while blood smeared on the tiled floor served as a reminder of the tragedy reflected in the play.
Much of the play’s personality was then showed through ACT’s ownership of the content. To add a new perspective on the dark source material, director Curt Foxworth and company added complementary touches to make the production refreshingly contemporary.
“Life is funny — sometimes tragedy is funny,” Burbage said. “There were very few times during the show where there was comedy done for comedy’s sake — in other words, milking it and expressing it in an exaggerated manner for the sake of comedy. A lot of the comedy came from simply saying lines differently, giving them a different tone or shedding new light on them that, in turn, completely changed the way you’d normally expect them to be.”
Humor was also generated through the visual display: A bluetooth-equipped assistant followed around Lady Montague, Paris popped his polo’s collar and the Capulets threw a dance party with red Solo cups — features seamlessly integrated into one of theater’s most familiar plays.
The pinnacle of the changes, though, came though the actors’ interpretation of the script.
“A great example is Romeo’s ‘But soft’ monologue,” Burbage said. “That speech is beaten to a pulp with lovey-dovey, puppy-dog
fascination when most actors performed it. We took a step back and realized that this is a teenager out to score with a girl that he likes, essentially creeping on her from a short distance. When you look at it that way, there’s almost an inherent silliness to it, as opposed to something contrived and calculated.”
The expressive cast added layers of personality to the production, including the Nurse (senior Carly DaSilva) taking a greater share of the spotlight. A flamboyant and exaggerated character with a penchant for big dramatic pauses and even bigger eye-rolls, DaSilva’s Nurse kept “Romeo and Juliet” fresh, and she connected the various storylines with aplomb.
There were plenty of other memorable performances from the cast, including Romeo’s entourage of Mercutio (senior Daniel Czarnowski) and Benvolio (senior Dan Malloy). The three packed enough on-stage chemistry for a trio that — while fatally flawed — had more than enough camaraderie, swagger and affection for each other to win audiences over.
“Czarnowski and I were good friends coming into the experience, so there was already a sense of towel-snapping chemistry that existed in our normal friendship that we effortlessly transported into our characters,” Burbage said. “Along with Dan Malloy, we used constant repetition for rehearsing the scenes in order to foster and maintain the tight pace that was — hopefully — observed by the audiences.”
Lord and Lady Capulet (seniors Nick Muoio and Shannon McGovern, respectively) also formed a successful partnership, albeit for wildly different reasons. The pair expertly transitioned from tone-deaf aristocrats to treacherous villains between acts, and Muoio mustered up a terrifying energy in Lord Capulet’s ultimatum that Juliet marry Paris.
But Burbage was always at the heart of the show, putting on an electrifying performance with the depth and intensity required for the role of Romeo. He handled the play’s wide range of themes with an equally broad set of abilities: showing the pubescent joy that goes hand-in-hand with young love, building a resolute affability while around his friends and showing an unstable, gloomy mood in the wake of tragedy.
With such a well-known, treasured part, it can be almost impossible to live up to expectations, but Burbage added memorable dimensions to a production that deserved it. And chemistry among everyone else in the play — including the swaggering, brotherly Mercutio, a fatherly Friar Laurence (junior Keith Mellea) and of course the lovely Juliet (senior Alexa Logush) — made “Romeo and Juliet” feel greater than the sum of its parts.
One of the flaws of the production was, with back-to-back hours of fast-paced Shakespearean dialogue, some of the lines — being spoken by a character sitting down, for example, or facing the back of the theater — were understandably hard to hear.
The faults were few, though, and minor enough to fade in reflection. The best parts of ACT’s “Romeo and Juliet” are also those which will be genuinely memorable: clever changes to the content, a more-than-complementary cast of characters and a distinctive lead performance that helped make this more than just another production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
“I don’t like ‘Romeo & Juliet,’” Burbage said. “That being said, I loved our version, and the finished product that we created, will go down as one of my favorite and fondest theater experiences. The idea of flipping the show upside-down and making it a bit more relatable to audiences was not only artistically important but quite necessary, given the fact that so many people struggle to understand Shakespeare.”