A Timely Romeo and Juliet

Cast of “Romeo and Juliet,” at the Huntington Theater (Photo: Huntington Theater)

“Theater is the essential art form of democracy,” claims Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater in New York. A new idea that power should stem from the consent of the governed—flowing from below to above—was born in Athens in the 6th century BCE. During that same era (so the story goes) a poet named Thespis stood on a stage and for the first time played a character, speaking as someone other than himself.

That evolution from traditional storytelling where the dialogue takes place inside our heads to one that is actually happening on a stage shifted everything. Two or more characters. Competing points of view. When a dialogue—and eventually drama—is taking place, we lean in to listen to both sides. “Truth can only emerge in the conflict of different points of view,” said Eustis. “If you believe in democracy, you have to believe that.”

Eustis draws other similarities between theater and democracy. The “emotional muscle of empathy” that theater requires is the same empathy that is also needed for a democracy to work. And then there is the issue of community. “When we enter an empty movie theater, it doesn’t really matter. But if we go to a live theater performance where the house is half empty, our heart sinks.” Whether we realize it or not, we come to be part of an audience and to have a collective group experience. “We may walk in as an individual consumer, but if the theater does its job you walk out with the sense of yourself as part of a whole.”

The communitarian dividend Eustis describes is in full view in the current political landscape. Unfortunately it is showing up primarily as splintered collectives rather than in service to the populace as a whole. Rallies have become tribal gatherings of the like-minded, broadcasting channels are increasingly just narrowcasting to a singular point of view, and online platforms are siloed into us/them divisions. In an increasingly Manichean world, you are either with me or against me. The assertion that “truth can only emerge in the conflict of different points of view” feels starved and, well, imperiled.

Eustis may be right. Theater could be one of the last bastions where truth can emerge from conflict. Peter DuBois, artistic director of the Huntington Theater, seems to have had that in mind when he chose to bring Romeo and Juliet to the stage in 2019.

“We’re very much fractured in the U.S. right now. People are living with intense, unyielding loyalty to their causes,” said DuBois. “I wanted to revisit Romeo and Juliet because it speaks so directly to today. Rather than just theoretical foes, audiences will probably recognize members of both houses, Montague and Capulet.”

“They’re our idols, our neighbors, civil servants and the media. What Shakespeare is writing about is the danger of a society given over to blind tribalism, set against the story of a besotted couple with a boundless sense of joy,” explained DuBois.

How many times have I seen or read this play in my lifetime? At least 30. But as is often the case with Shakespeare—and one of the reasons directors and audiences come back to him again and again—this play is much more than its famous and more obvious themes of tragic love, blind fate, tribal hatred and wisdom won from profound loss. In bringing a contemporary lens to this production of the play, DuBois introduces some additional themes that resonate with the cultural moment we are in right now.

For example, the tribalism in this production comes forward in blinkered hatred and rage. This is more than two families harboring a long standing grudge: It is closer to the life threatening anger unleashed in Charlottesville or the attacks on the media at Trump rallies. Mercutio (Matthew J. Harris) is a jacked up hot head veering out of control. Tybalt (John Zdrojeski) is a churning cauldron of hatred looking for any excuse to explode. The seething tension of two warring tribes is the emotional backdrop of the entire play, a vibe that many of us recognize.

As more attention is finally being paid recently to the experience of outsiders—minorities, women, LBGTQ, inter alia—all narratives are game for fresh assessment. Aside from the larger (and multi-dimensional) topic of women in Shakespeare’s plays, there is something noteworthy in the way women are portrayed in DuBois’ Romeo and Juliet. Whether a woman is a mother, a wife, a nurse or a young woman, she knows the decision making power resides with the men. For all the women in this play, you can’t win for losing.

Juliet (Lily Santiago) clearly sees the stranglehold her culture and family have on her free will. Santiago’s Juliet has a steely sense of herself that is rare in a person so young. This is more than a story of impetuous love at first sight: In this telling Juliet makes the decision to marry a man she has only known for a few hours not just from youthful infatuation but from what seems to be a calculated real life assessment of how few options she actually has in her life. (Better a bad decision you made for yourself than to being sold off to Paris by your father?) Santiago plays Juliet as emotionally cool, undauntingly brave and willing to ride out her fate without self pity or mawkishness. This is a characterization I found understandable and believable.

The role of class and power in the story also reflects a current tension. Wilson Chin designed a stage set that speaks to an upper class that is ubiquitously international. Regardless of the internecine battles between the Montagues and the Capulets, they share a common set of social norms. (Seth Godin’s self-defining phrase comes to mind here—“people like us do things like that.”) Those shared social norms and the privilege afforded by their social position blind both the Montagues and the Capulets from seeing how dangerous their actions have become.

Privilege comes at a price. In this production both innocence and what constitutes responsible behavior are reconsidered. George Hampe’s Romeo is charming and charismatic, but privilege obscures his ability to see how close to the edge he and his friends are skating. He operates with a dreamy naiveté that Juliet, a disenfranchised female, is not privileged to consider. I read this Romeo as both innocent and guilty, a victim of circumstance but also someone who chooses badly.

DuBois’ production is kinetic, full of life, colorful and engaging. In some ways it had too many good ideas, not all of them well integrated into the fabric of the production. For example, the play begins with the edgy reality of street life in Verona. This ethos, full of tension, feels undercut by the Capulet party where Romeo and Juliet meet. The scene goes full fantasy, with both Romeo and Juliet donning winged costumes as they are lifted up above the crowd. While visually sumptuous, this treatment seems out of step with the play’s essential tone. In another example, it was not clear how the clerestory windows of the set were meant to be used. At one point after Mercutio’s death he is seen through those upper windows, still in party costume as if parading through the hereafter. Interesting idea, but one that seemed to whimper out and disappear. These mismatched and half-hatched efforts were minor however in the overall success of the production.

Romeo and Juliet begins with a tell-all prologue. Shakespeare explains to the audience in sonnet form what is going to happen, preparing us for the tragedy of these “star-crossed” lovers.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

The prologue offers a frame that reinforces the sense of fate that will play out in the subsequent “two hours’ traffic of our stage”. But it is also an invitation for the audience to step back from identifying too closely with a poignant tale of thwarted young love so that the larger causes of this tragedy can be seen clearly.

How useful it would be to have an equivalent framing function to aid us in navigating the current narrative unfolding in our lives now, in real time. Is truth being allowed to emerge through conflict of different points of view? I don’t know that we can even share a room to discuss our differences. Meanwhile DuBois and his team have created a Romeo and Juliet that speaks to our predicaments in 2019 with more accuracy than I would have considered possible. As Eustis pointed out, these theatrical expressions are essential right now. The relevance rating? High.

Romeo and Juliet is at the Huntington Theater through March 31.