By: Samuel L. Leiter
May 14, 2023: Celebrated actress Mia Katigbak, cofounder of Off Broadway’s National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) in 1989, writes in her exuberant program notes for Hansol Jung’s (Wolf Play)modern verse translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that it is “vibrant, athletic, lyrical, revelatory.” Based on the misguided production now onstage at the Lynn F. Angelson Theatre (home of the Classic Stage Company), one would have to take issue with this assessment, although Katigbak’s assertion that the play—which the Second Quarto calls The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet—expresses how society continues to be plagued by age-old rivalries is valid enough.
Like much else she points to, however, there’s nothing in the Jungian version along these lines that isn’t already in Shakespeare’s original. On the other hand, there’s so much unnecessary distraction here, it would be surprising if anyone could take away any meaningful themes from what amounts to a mountain of sophomoric directorial gimmickry.
While not ignoring the play’s tragic themes, Katigbak makes sure to note the comedic elements, which is all well and good until you see the production, directed by Jung and Dustin Wills as if it were the Elizabethan version of Hellzapoppin. Whatever tragedy may be present is so swallowed up with farcical horseplay that you could be excused if you thought the co-directors considered Romeo and Juliet a sequel to The Comedy of Errors.
Originally commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and premiered by NAATCO in 2019 at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey, the production is performed in the timeworn style of a small, itinerant troupe setting up shop to perform with minimal means, and doing everything in its power to downplay conventional realism in favor of playful theatricalism.
The stage proper—designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee—is a large, round, wooden table set between audience bleachers on either side of the space. Bisecting the table is a filmy beige curtain that either completely hides one side of the house from the other, or is raised, like the sails of a ship, by thick ropes to hang overhead in multiple folds. No furniture mars the table top, which is fitted with several trap doors used for multiple entrances and exits; one trap door’s underside is fitted with a synthesizer, mic, and keyboard. Scallop-shaped footlights ring the platform.
The traps also often serve as acting spaces. Stuffed into the space between the stage and floor are dozens of props, including numerous trunks and suitcases. As per the convention for productions on such stages, actors not in the scenes being enacted occupy the sidelines, changing their costumes and watching the proceedings. The facing bleachers, by the way, allow those on either side to see not only sleeping faces but just how many ticketholders across the space defected for greener pastures during the intermission.
Nine players, many doubling, and all participating in ensemble duties, wear a wild assortment of deliberately makeshift costumes—designed by Mariko Ohigashi—ranging across the centuries, some in clown-like, oversized pants held up by suspenders, and others with contemporary jeans paired with Elizabethan doublets or 19th-century petticoats taken on and off before our eyes. Ensemble members shift props while wearing 18th-century-style white wigs and dime-store eyeglasses attached to huge, plastic noses. When you think about it, there’s only one degree of separation between this comically exaggerated Romeo and Juliet and its equally over-the-top contemporary, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, at the Lucille Lortel.
Among the irrelevant directorial choices, a male actor (Daniel Liu) plays both Lady Capulet and Lady Montague (as well as the servant Peter), wearing a crude cardboard sign around his neck that he flips to designate which of the women he is at any moment. A similar sign serves the actor (Bryan Lee Huynh) playing these women’s spouses. At one point, a coat rack—the character sign suspended from it—is enlisted to be Lady Capulet. Friar Laurence (Purva Bedi) is played by an actress in a flannel shirt, baggy pants, and red rubber waders, looking like she should be carrying a rod and reel rather than a bible.
This anything-goes attitude pervades the production, most of it making little sense, and stirring the audience to laugh—and me to groan—at one lowest common denominator lazzi after the other. This is the kind of wink-wink Shakespeare, for example, where it’s considered hilarious to have the actors simulate masturbation no matter how flimsy the pretext. You can imagine the thrill the directors felt when the word “prick” raised its head in the text. Romeo (Major Curda), his hair in a long pony tail, and Juliet (Dorcas Leung), in a t-shirt with the word ABBON sitting astride DANZA (abbondanza is “wealthy” in Italian), are dressed in conventional grunge. Juliet also favors ridiculously large animal slippers; one pair looks like crocodiles, the other like camels.
The doomed lovers sing a number of their sequences (music by Brian Quijada, innocuous except for one duet), as in their meeting at the masked ball, Romeo usually being equipped with his trusty guitar. Juliet’s mask, by the way, is a bird cage (as in, I imagine, “she’s only a bird . . .”), and they kiss when Romeo opens the little door at its bottom. The infestation of contemporary music doesn’t stop with the play’s romance; there are also infusions of hip hop, as when Mercutio (Jose Gamo) turns the “Queen Mab” speech into a rap routine. If you ever had trouble following its imagery before, be prepared for an approach that only doubles down on its opaqueness. And, yes, there are handheld mics.
The extended fight between Tybalt (Rob Kellogg, who also plays Paris) and Mercutio—staged by the excellent Rick Sordelet—depends largely on hand-to-hand combat, with the coup de grace inflicted by what looks like a small steak knife. Romeo, of course, slays Tybalt in revenge, for which he is banished by the Prince, played by Ms. Katigbak, looking every diminutive inch out of place; she makes a more suitable, if disappointingly unmemorable, Nurse.
Act I’s self-indulgent tomfoolery is so abundant you begin to suspect that, as in New York’s other current iteration of the Bard’s tragedy of star-crossed lovers, the Broadway musical & Juliet, the play will end happily, not in death. Thankfully, the second act of this nearly two-hour and 45-minute farrago actually takes a darker turn, with the sillier antics mostly toned down. But only to a point; after Juliet’s faux demise, a small band of musicians, dominated by a French horn, launches into an idiotic interpolation built around Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Shakespeareans should expect an onset of purple rage.
When we get to the tomb scene, the lights are turned off so that the only illumination comes from handheld flashlights; you’ve seen this before, I’m sure, where the actors hold the lights not only so we can see the action, but so they can create gloomy effects by pointing the beams up at their own faces. (Joey Moro is the lighting designer.) The deaths of Romeo and Juliet are played in such darkness you’ll miss them if you blink, while the final moments commemorating the tragedy are hidden, barely heard from offstage as spoken by the Prince.
With so much mishegoss to deal with, you can be forgiven for forgetting that a key component of this Romeo and Juliet is its updated verse. Jung is actually more faithful to Shakespeare than I expected, many of the familiar lines being retained or only slightly altered, although there are frequent moments when the clash between a Shakespeare line and a Jung adaptation grates upon the ears. Your tolerance for Jung’s adaptation will depend, to a degree, on your response to hearing such things as “boob” standing in for “dug.” Regardless, the mostly young company will not win awards for its elocutionary gifts, the general effect being more linguistic mush than verbal mastery.
For an example of Jung’s adaptation, here are some lines from Romeo’s famous soliloquy on spying Juliet at her bedroom window (there’s no balcony in this production), the one beginning, “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” The first five lines match but then, where Shakespeare gives us, “Be not her maid, since she is envious / Her vestal livery is but sick and green / And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off,” Jung offers, “Do not be hidden ‘neath her virgin cloak; / Her vestal gown is sick and green with envy, / And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.” Ouch!
Given the clarity of the original, the revisions, in this, as in many other examples, are awkward and intrusive. There are, of course, examples where Jung’s “translation” makes Shakespeare more easily comprehensible, but too many lines are jarring when placed in proximity to the originals. On the other hand, a complete, prosaic modernization of the cited passage might have sounded something like this: “Hold on. What’s that light I see in the window over there? Ah! It’s Juliet, shining like the sun. Stand up, gorgeous sun, and kill the moon, so jealous that you, her maid, are prettier than she. You’re a fool to serve that green-eyed moon; and get rid of that sickly green maid’s uniform!”
Horrid as such a rewriting would be, it might be suitable for a revival like this one, which should properly be called The Most Excellent and Lamentable Travesty of Romeo and Juliet.
Romeo and Juliet
Lynn F. Angelson Theater
136 E. 13th Street, NYC
Through June 3, 2023
Photography: Julieta Cervantes