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Declamations by the balcony? Joe Banno has other ideas about Romeo and Juliet. Dime bags sold in Friar Lawrence’s biology class, for instance, not to mention a half-dozen plaid-clad parochial schoolgirls who efficiently disarm a contentious clutch of Capulets and Montagueswith an assist from a whistle-wielding nun. This, plainly, is not the Zeffirelli film.
There is, however, a fleeting (and funny) reference to that high-school-English chestnut in this dangerously sharp production of the Shakespeare classic, a sidelong sendup that’ll provoke a knowing guffaw from anyone with a musical memory. Taken with the other visual and verbal witticisms Banno has woven in, it gives this staging a brisk, buoyant humorand, by marking the edges of the tale’s tragedy, emphasizes its rich emotional heart. And since comparisons are going to be inevitable, let’s just say now that humor and real heart were qualities noticeably lacking in Baz Luhrmann’s similarly chic, frenetically modern 1996 screen treatment of the story.
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Luhrmann’s gritty urban “Verona Beach” gives way here to a Verona that could be Virginia Beachor Bailey’s Crossroads, Fairfax, or Alexandria. Club-kid Capulets and Montagues in what could be Mossimo run loose in a suburban playground, nursing grudges for the same reason the Spur Posse kept count of its conquests: sheer arrogant boredom. Banno (Washington City Paper’s opera critic) signals his intentions early: Shakespeare’s “star-crossed lovers” prologue gets pared down to a couple of key phrases delivered not by a chorus but as a rap, over the insistent thump of deep house.
Later, an amiably cynical Benvolio (Christopher Borg) twists Romeo’s maudlin pining for the coldhearted Rosaline into a saccharine rock lyric, playing air guitar the way high-schoolers play tiny pretend violins to indicate sarcastic sympathy; hard on his heels, Mercutio finds all manner of sexual innuendo in his Queen Mab speech. (In one of the few missteps Banno has allowed, Paul Takacs plays the scene too broadlyabout eight inches too broadly.) Juliet, in a moment too offhandedly hip even for Luhrmann, coos “parting is such sweet sorrow” into a cellphone.
Banno even has the reckless confidence to play the first minutes of the balcony scene for humor. It’s absolutely a gamble, and you sit wondering if he has finally pushed his conceit too far when John Worley delivers Romeo’s “It is my ladyO that she knew she were” with vaudevillian one-two timing. But things advance, and after the slapstick bit in which he clumsily climbs the balcony while she anxiously descends the stair, the two finally get a quiet moment alone. As a coltish Juliet skittishly owns up to the sentiments Romeo has already overheard her confess, Holly Twyford’s freshness and guilelessness in the role bring the scene back to its serious center, and you realize that despite the clever, catchy gloss, this Romeo and Juliet has its heart in the right place: on its trendy sleeve.
Riches abound: Michael Tolaydo’s racquetball-playing, barbecue-tending Capulet reads at first like a caricature of a Jersey hood but quickly becomes a portrayal of surprising emotional range. Cam Magee, who as dramaturge trimmed the play for this production, also makes a welcome appearance as the Nurse, handling the part’s broad comic bits with style and extracting real emotional weight from her more solemn scenes. Rick Foucheux’s intense priest is more worldly and realistic than Shakespeare’s, but no less human or fallible in the end. (Foucheux’s best moment comes when he loses patience with Romeo’s melodramatic reaction to his banishment, pinning him to a blackboard still covered with gore from Tybalt’s murder; it’s a starkly violent echo of Romeo’s earlier rage, a vivid reminder of the loss of control that put him in his untenable position.)
Even the interloper Paris is more three-dimensional in Banno’s Verona; Chris Stezin makes him an amiable star-quarterback type, perhaps a little arrogant in his self-confidence but certainly no villain.
Tony Cisek’s impressive black granite tomb of a set immediately sets the show’s tone and provides a functionally adaptable minimalist canvas for the action to play on; it seems equally apt as Capulet courtyard and crack alley. But the production’s modernist conceit is not without its challenges: You’ll wonder how Friar Lawrence’s crucial message for Romeo could go so entirely astray in the modern wired world, but Banno finesses the question neatly, neutralizing the hero’s laptop and cellphone in the nick of time. The issue of the feuding families’ utter lawlessness is another matter: NYPD Blue-weaned audiences won’t ever be entirely able to smooth over the disconnect that comes when a teenager who has killed a schoolmate is merely run out of town.
Still, there’s a certain grotesque elegance in a Romeo and Juliet that offers its heroes suicide in the shape of a shared syringe. Moreover, Banno has the sense and good taste to make his updating serve the text at every turn; would that higher-paid directors of higher-profile productions had the same aim. This is a show to measure others against: stylishly horrific, splendidly substantive, genuinely wrenching, absolutely current, relentlessly relevant, and human. Superlative Shakespeare.CP