The new season at Actors Theatre of Louisville is off to a rousing start with an energized and stylish contemporary production of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The season opener is both a homecoming for the director, Louisville native Tony Speciale, and a bright sign of things to come for the theater with new artistic director Les Waters at the helm.
“Romeo and Juliet” opened Thursday and runs through September 26 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium. Learn more about what happens behind the scenes at “Cocktails with the Cast” after the September 13 show, or enjoy a moderated conversation with the artists after the September 16 matinee.
The story of Juliet (the luminous Elvy Yost) and her Romeo (Grantham Coleman, appropriately dreamy and dashing) is so well-known and -loved that references to it border on cliché. The teenage children of wealthy rival families fall in love at a party and secretly marry, but when tension between the clans turns violent and tears them apart, a plot to reunite them fails and ends in their tragic suicides. The biggest challenge for a company mounting a Shakespeare production—especially “Romeo and Juliet,” easily the most familiar work of the Bard—is how to make the play feel fresh and necessary, so the emotional impact of the timeless story is made as accessible as possible.
While Shakespeare’s language remains as muscular and vital as always (Mercutio’s “we burn daylight, ho!” gets a new laugh in a contemporary context), there’s a lot that doesn’t translate easily about 16th century Verona’s customs, which drive the action of the play. Speciale, a former member of the Actors Theatre apprentice company, is the associate artistic director of New York’s Classic Stage Company. In an earlier interview, Speciale said he likes to approach a classical play as if each production were a brand-new script, taking nothing for granted as settled.
This technique works wonders on “Romeo and Juliet,” now updated to the affluent American suburbs, where nihilistic boredom and an illusion of safety allow routine small-town antagonism between old money Montagues and nouveau riche Capulets to build to a fever pitch. Fight scenes (under the direction of Adam Rihacek) are savage, but no less so is the Capulet party, a hedonistic display that distracts the Capulets from how adrift Juliet has become from the family and household.
The Capulets’ flashy, sexy lifestyle echoes the reality television programs that follow “real housewives” and celebutantes around upscale suburban developments in Southern California. Daniel Zimmerman’s white modernist set, complete with a focal point of a swimming pool, is both luxurious and stark, like the Capulets—stylish, but with little warmth.
Lord Capulet (Bruce McKenzie) is an aging hipster with anger issues. Lady Capulet (Amy Morse) is his trophy wife, barely 17 herself when she had Juliet and still glamorous, yet very much subservient to her powerful husband’s whims. She struggles to connect with her daughter, whose closest family is her nurse, an often-thankless comic relief role played with panache and heart by Myra Lucretia Taylor. Yost’s Juliet is a flighty nervous talker, but anger and frustration simmer barely under her surface until Verona’s violence and her impending arranged marriage to wealthy and connected Paris (Matthew Stucky) shake her into taking control of her life, to tragic end.
Lord and Lady Capulet’s house crawls with a louche cadre of cousins and hangers-on, drinking all the good beer and playing violent Xbox games while waiting for something exciting to happen. When the Montague boys crash a Capulet after-school pool party, that first inciting insult—“do you bite your thumb at me?”—is translated into an unmistakable lewd and demeaning gesture that reads loud and clear for today’s audience.
The tone of the first half of the play is somewhat comic, though the violence always lurks. The ribald humor of the teen boys (tempered somewhat by sensible Montague cousin Benvolio, the stalwart Ben Diskant) is writ with the body as much as the tongue, and the young lovers are set on a romantic comedy path until Mercutio (an electrifying Nate Miller, whose freestyling wit is the freshest take on Mercutio I’ve seen) and Tybalt (Jordan Dean) die in a prolonged fight outside of a nightclub, set to sound designer Christian Frederickson’s thumping techno score. The love story turns to tragedy in one scene.
Scenes between Romeo and Juliet are marked with a sweet, simple beauty that stand in sharp contrast to the amped-up excess surrounding them, like the sparklers they light during their first kiss as the rest of the party watches custom fireworks behind them, and Romeo’s video diary projected on the wall behind them as they cuddle in bed after their wedding night. That scene echoes in the tragic denouement when Romeo’s video confessional plays on the wall of the morgue for the horrified survivors.
It would be easy to cast the Capulets as the villains in this rendition. They’re loud and vulgar, and cousin Tybalt escalates the conflict significantly by introducing the real threat of violence. But as the head of House Montague, Romeo’s mother (Lord and Lady have been rolled into one character) might be prone to more classic displays of wealth and position—her luxury briefcase to Lady Capulet’s designer jeans—but she is no more aware of her son’s life and immersed as deeply in her aristocratic position as the Capulets are in securing their own through marrying Juliet to the Kennedy-esque Paris. And so the play indicts the empty struggle to attain and maintain status and wealth, highlighting all that they cannot shield you from.