Few fans of Elizabethan drama would call Romeo & Juliet Shakespeare’s best play. It is, nonetheless, his most famous, and maybe his most enduring, too. Though it was written more than four hundred years ago, its broad particulars remain familiar to everybody. Its themes and tropes are the same ones you’ll see on the Netflix charts: family feuds, gangs, violence, blood, a tight and troubling conflation of sex and death. Romeo & Juliet is endlessly revived, referred to, and remixed — by, just to name a few, Leonard Bernstein, Baz Luhrmann, Prokofiev, and Taylor Swift, who, with her typical audacity, contrives a happy ending. No corner of the dramatic universe is safe from an invasion of murderous Capulets and Montagues. Right now, a repertory somewhere is planning to put Romeo & Juliet in outer space.
Thankfully, the Curtain production of Romeo & Juliet at Nimbus Arts Center (329 Warren St.) isn’t that. The show’s Jazz Age dressing never goes too deep or upends expectations too vigorously: it’s mostly an excuse to put Romeo, Juliet, and their pals in sharp period costumes and set them dancing, flapper-style, to saxophones at the Capulet ball. Director Sean Hagerty keeps the Veronese setting, the seventeenth century attitudes toward life and love; most importantly, he retains Shakespeare’s verse, which rolls at us in a torrent of figurative language, astral metaphors, and dick jokes. The set, sparse but clever, enhances the immersion by letting the light break from yonder windows at both sides of the black box. A door, well-trafficked by the cast, opens right atop the audience riser. Romeo, played with emo intensity and world-negating entitlement by Aria Shahghasemi, begins his legendary moonlight come-on with one hand on the bleacher railing. From your lap does he woo his Juliet.
It almost feels silly to do it, but I’ll summarize anyway: Romeo & Juliet tells the story of a brief and calamitous affair between a pair of horny teenagers. The plot, which had been kicking around the Elizabethan stage for awhile before Shakespeare got its hands on it, also includes rival clans, an ancient grudge, a complicit clergyman, nanny envy, the dynamics of misapprehension, and parents who just don’t understand. By making the ungovernability of young lust the main driver of the drama — at least the first half of it, anyway — Shakespeare alchemized tragedy and romance, and, in the process, practically invented YA literature. Many revivalists undercut the force of the play by making Juliet as elegant as Natalie Wood. The Curtain doesn’t err like that. Anita Pomario’s Juliet is bratty, flirtatious, and sexually precocious. She has the desires of a woman, but she throws tantrums like a toddler. Pomario spends the majority of the drama chafing at invisible restrictions, fists balled, chin set, shoulders hunched, gathering strength to punch through a chrysalis. Dance, sex, sleep, death, whatever release you’ve got, she’s visibly craving it.
The other young actors are similarly restless. Tucker Lewis’s Mercutio, for instance, cannot settle down. He is either knocked into an inebriated stupor or his stalking the stage from corner to corner, gesticulating, making obscene gestures, leading with wild eyes. Like his buddy Benvolio, played amicably by Jomack Miranda, he’s consumed by thoughts of getting it on, even as he decries conventional romance. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio is Shakespeare’s own creation, and the playwright gives his overgrown imp many of the best lines. You do not have to be a queer theorist to recognize that he is hot for Romeo: it’s right there in his barbed and bristling language, filled with bawdy puns and provocations. His discomfort and confusion helps explain his glowering aggression, and maybe his self-medication, too.
As long as Mercutio and Benvolio are in the play, Romeo & Juliet maintains the entertaining looseness of teenagers locking horns, testing limits, and sometimes quite literally feeling each other out. When they mock Romeo’s lovelorn despondency and his flightiness (mere moments before falling for Juliet, he’s obsessed with another girl), they seem to speak for the author as well as the audience. When that light goes out in the Mercurio-free second half of the play, Romeo & Juliet loses much of resonance and nearly all of its liveliness. The vicious banter, one-upmanship, and sexual itch that motors and modernizes the drama gives way to the convoluted plot mechanics typical of the Elizabethan era. Dull adults rather than randy teens begin to drive the action. The mad ruse concocted by Friar Laurence, played on the night I saw the play by director Hagerty himself, works better as a deep psychological symbol of the plunge toward death than it does as a story element. In any case, it’s time-consuming, and its slow and disastrous unfolding eats up most of the play’s lengthy final lap. This is a problem with William Shakespeare’s design, and the Curtain becomes the latest company to fail to come up with a satisfactory solution.
The other issue is general across all interpretations of Shakespeare, whether Jazz Age, space age, or Stone Age. The density of the language in Elizabethan drama is part of the fun, but it’s also a tremendous departure from the “show, don’t tell” ethos that defines the rest of modern narrative entertainment. Those accustomed to Walter White or Stringer Bell may twiddle their thumbs during Juliet’s tortured, poetic play-by-play of every passing thought. Shakespeare’s spangled diction can be a delight to read and hear, but even on the page, it can proceed at a radically different pace than the story does. It’s up to the cast to keep the dialogue from becoming merely decorative, and especially in the slower second half of Romeo & Juliet, that can be a heavy lift. It requires constant attentiveness to every line coupled with impeccable elocution — and not everybody in the Curtain’s cast had those skills. The day was consistently saved by the most valuable player on Hagerty’s team: Christianna Nelson, whose turn as Juliet’s earthy, amiable Nurse enlivened every scene she was in. Not merely did she pivot nimbly from elation to horror and motherly affection to utter abjection. She dit it all with absolute clarity and careful handling of the rhythms of the poetry she was animating.
The Curtain, which was formerly known as Shakespeare@, received a maximum operating grant from the Jersey City Arts and Culture Trust Fund. With public money comes public awareness, and, arguably, certain crowd-pleasing responsibilities. At $25, they’ve priced their theater ticket very reasonably. There’s no way you’re catching actors of this caliber so cheaply on the far side of the river. The Curtain’s evangelizing commitment to Shakespeare is real, and their deep appreciation for his peculiar vision is apparent. They’ve given us the greatest hit. Here’s hoping they’re back soon with a deeper cut.