I’m always a little apprehensive going to see yet another production of “Romeo and Juliet.” What’s it going to be this time? London ’80s punks? Roaring ’20s? Chinese emperors? The Third Reich? As one audience member quipped next to me on opening night at Tacoma’s New Muses’ production, you could make a joke news story out of a theater that had the gall to present the Shakespeare love story in its original 16th-century era.
So when you discover a production that not only says something new with “Romeo and Juliet,” but says it in a compellingly contemporary way, you rejoice. Such is the case at New Muses, held in Tacoma’s tiny Dukesbay Theater in the Merlino Building. Director Niclas Olson and his cast take this age-old story and recast it with cinematic verve, reminding us that, above all, it’s a story about two teenagers — with all the drama, frustration and lovability that entails.
Not that it’s a perfect production. Olson has begun a season of “stripped” productions, which use the same table, four chairs and a ladder for an entire year of sets. It’s a nice idea, but one that in practice doesn’t help the drama. The pale gray, vintage-carved furniture doesn’t fit the modern Italy of “Romeo and Juliet,” while the awkwardness of two actors clinging to a ladder while trying to emote the passionate balcony scene is painful to watch. And a table doesn’t make a bed, much as you try. Behind this minimalism is a heathered scrim that’s backlit with blood-like red or multicolored party strobes: atmospheric, but a little otherworldly.
Olson’s blocking could also use a little work. With so few cast members, the party scene looks empty and awkward, and the trio scenes between Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio are stilted, the camaraderie not gelling.
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But once the lovers get going, this production starts to soar. Olson makes a moody, Hamlet-ish Romeo, flitting with ease between wholehearted passion and cynical weariness. He woos Juliet (Jenna McRill) with charm and adorable insecurity, and McRill responds with a startling wisdom and a real sweetness. Around them, most other characters shine: Sara Geiger is perfect for the joshing, tough-faced Benvolio (with a surprise twist); Deanna Martinez brings out both the gabbling comedy of the Nurse and her deeper, caring side. Lance Zielinski makes a calm and philosophical Friar Laurence. Frustratingly, Tony Onorati is too whimsical — and far too old — as Mercutio, losing our support way before his face-off with Tybalt (Steven Walker, a vicious fighting machine).
What makes this production stand out, though, is the way the entire cast works together to make you realize that Romeo and Juliet are, in fact, teenagers. It’s easy to forget this, with a plot that takes the two far beyond any typical teen situation today. But Olson and McRill channel perfect teens, right down to Romeo’s curling tizzy fits on the floor and Juliet’s impatient insults hurled after her nurse and parents, followed instantly by love and need. In turn, the Capulets (Steve Gallion and Emily Robinson), Nurse and Friar exchange knowing, eye-rolling frustration at their behavior. The teen dynamic completely explains Lord Capulet’s violent anger at his daughter, explains many of the long monologues, and explains the protagonists’ final impulsive, gut-wrenching choices.
Set inside a cinematic scene sequence with an emotive backdrop of pop soundbites (Beyoncé to Lorde), this “Romeo and Juliet” dives inside the teen mind, pulling the Renaissance firmly into our present. If you have a teen in your life, this is the Shakespeare you’ll want them to see. And if you don’t, see it anyway and ponder that crazy period in all our lives when only death is as strong as love.