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Romeo & Juliet stays relevant, vibrant

Romeo, played by senior acting major Adam Hagenbuch, and Juliet, played by senior acting major Grace Rao, meet at a masquerade ball. (credit: Courtesy of Louis Stein) Romeo, played by senior acting major Adam Hagenbuch, and Juliet, played by senior acting major Grace Rao, meet at a masquerade ball. (credit: Courtesy of Louis Stein)

If you’re currently reading this article and don’t know the story of William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, you should probably just stop reading. No? All right, if thou doth persist. The timeless classic tells the story of young lovers Romeo and Juliet whose respective families are locked in a perpetual feud. Their love goes through multiple trials until they finally find peace in committing suicide in each other’s arms.

Just about everyone has been told this story, so what makes a production of the play stand out is how the story is told. The School of Drama’s production of Romeo & Juliet, directed by voice and speech professor Don Wadsworth, definitely takes an interesting and relevant approach to the time-tested tale.

This Romeo & Juliet is set in the modern day, and this setting helps bring forth many of the central themes of the play. Phone cameras and Facebook statuses figure prominently in the characters’ actions, and costuming and music choices firmly establish the play in the present. By setting the 500-year-old tale in the ecstasy-fueled, individualistic culture of today’s youth, this production conveys the continued resonance of Romeo and Juliet’s story and illustrates why this show will never die.

Romeo and Juliet perfectly capture the rush of being in love and the desire to make that feeling, that one moment in time, last forever despite daunting circumstances. The violence of the play also speaks volumes about the needlessness of the deaths in today’s society, especially since it all occurs amongst youth. Just as with the recent explosion of mass shootings around the country, the youth of Romeo & Juliet die for reasons completely unknown to them, and that makes their drive to fulfill their lives all the more powerful.

As with most School of Drama productions, the acting as a whole is top notch. Senior acting major Brian Morabito takes full advantage of the extroverted Mercutio, turning him into a whiskey-swigging, coke-sniffing loose cannon. Senior acting major Marquis Wood’s Tybalt perfectly complements Morabito by matching that level of energy, but with laser-sharp focus. Senior acting major Alex Spieth’s Nurse kept the audience in stitches throughout with her sharp comic delivery and occasional sips from a flask.

And of course, it wouldn’t be Romeo & Juliet without a Romeo and a Juliet. Senior acting major Adam Hagenbuch and senior acting major Grace Rao support the entire play as the title characters, and each does a great job at avoiding the usual pitfalls that accompany the roles (e.g. being whiny, foolish, immature, etc.). Senior acting major Lachlan McKinney takes the role of Friar Lawrence and does a lot of great things with it. McKinney expertly swings from providing comic relief to portraying a man helplessly watching everyone’s lives fall apart, and he does it with all the commitment and energy that makes people forget they’re watching an actor pretend to be someone else.

The set is minimally decorated but encompasses multiple levels, allowing the action to occur in numerous places. The actors all inhabit a space that’s closed in on three sides by chain-link fence, a set that highlights the urban environment in which the play is set, as well as the characters’ feeling of entrapment, both in their inability to love each other due to the feud and their inability to change their fate and eventual demise.

The decision to incorporate modern-day music into the production is an interesting one, but the music was occasionally distracting. At times it drowned out the actors or made the production feel a little bit too cinematic. That being said, when it worked (such as the use of “What I’ve Done” by Linkin Park at the conclusion of the first half) it made the play really hit you in the gut.

Romeo & Juliet is a tough play to do because just about everyone knows how it’s going to end (Shakespeare even lays it all out in the opening prologue, though this production leaves those lines for the end). For a production to have any resonance for the audience, the story must be told in a new and exciting way that they haven’t seen before. The School of Drama definitely found a good way to showcase both the talents of its students (everything from acting to set design to lighting) and prove that a play written during the Elizabethan era can still pack a punch and be relevant today. Romeo & Juliet is a play that perfectly embraces what it’s like to be young and in love, and that’s a feeling that anyone can somehow relate to.