You may have read Shakespeare’s most famous love story during your freshman year of high school, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeing it live.
“Forget everything that old crone taught you,” said actor Petrea Whittier of high school English teachers. “Remember the play is extremely funny until it’s not, don’t be afraid to laugh. Shakespearian plays — especially ‘Romeo and Juliet’ — shouldn’t be lofty experiences. They weren’t in 1600 when they were performed, and if they are now, that’s a sign of bad directing, not bad writing.”
Whittier plays Juliet and Abraham in the production, part of the Shakespeare in the Park tour and her debut season with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.
And she’s right. This staging of “Romeo and Juliet” is the exact opposite of the dull reading you were forced to sit through a few years ago — it’s amusing, funny at times and full of emotion.
Shakespeare is much easier to understand when you’re watching it. Instead of having to stop every few lines to dissect what Romeo and Juliet are saying, it’s obvious in the acting. Suddenly, you’re aware of the humor in the way Juliet teases Romeo, how nervous Romeo is when he approaches Juliet at the costume party, and the frustration Juliet feels about her unfortunate situation.
We may know exactly how the play ends (thanks to the prologue), but that doesn’t mean this cast hasn’t reimagined the story and characters to appeal to a modern audience.
Juliet is sassy and independent. Tybalt and Benvolio are played by women, not men. And Nurse isn’t the frail, old maid that your high school friend read her to be. In this adaptation, she has a dirty mind and a laugh reminiscent of Janice from ‘Friends.’
‘Shut up and dance with me’ is the signature song of the Capulet costume party, where everyone, clad in superhero garb, drinks out of Solo cups. Romeo’s friends sing a Meatloaf song and Juliet can’t hear her mother because the music playing in her earbuds is too loud.
Actor Douglas Fries has an explanation for why “Romeo and Juliet” is still relevant, hundreds of years later.
“Our fearless director Jeremy Dubin describes ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as an Elizabethan American Pie with a tragic ending,” Fries said. “Despite changed social structures and heightened language, Romeo and Juliet capture the spirit of youth and all that goes along with it.”
Whittier agrees, saying that different aspects of the story appeal to a person at various times in their life.
“Being young and in love for the first time, being older and more cynical (or wise), watching your friends make bad decisions, being the person who makes those bad decisions. I think there’s a bit of Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio, Benvolio, Nurse and Lord Capulet in all of us throughout our lives,” she said.
What makes the show even more interesting is that the six actors not only perform, but also do everything else for the production. They set up and tear down, move the props and do all of the backstage work, and even hand out programs before the show starts. That nice guy who greeted you and gave you a program as you walked in? That’s Doug. He plays Friar Lawrence and Paris.
Even more impressive is the ensemble makes it seem so easy. As if speaking in Shakespearean verse and running an entire two-hour performance at the same time is a piece of cake.
The Cincinnati Shakespeare Company will be performing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 25, in Uptown Park. The show is free to all.