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Theater Review: “Romeo and Juliet”

“Romeo and Juliet” plays through September 15, 2019 at The Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.
Photo credit:
Jim Cox

Director Barry Edelstein takes an extraordinarily youthful approach in directing Shakespeare’s iconic “Romeo and Juliet” for the first time. It is, after all, about a couple of kids in love.

His cast includes 14 actors in the USD/Old Globe graduate theater program. His move of the time from the 16th century to an unspecified modern era and use of an above-stage piano to accompany, and his use of unquestionably contemporary songs speak to this.

I get all that. But placing a huge sandbox center stage, and adding an extremely young Romeo and Juliet (in non-speaking roles) to jump in and play games in the sand at the top of the show – and then making the adult actors slog through the sand in the course of entrances and exits – does seem a bit extreme, not to mention distracting.

Then there’s the panel of rear-stage projections allegedly depicting the town of Verona – which looks more like Fresno than the lovely, river-runs-through-it town I visited some years back.

Okay, it’s a different world – really different, one in which Romeo gives us his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Huh?

But Juliet is still 15, and still not interested in Paris, the parental husband choice, no matter how much money he has. She’s just met and fallen for Romeo – at her dad’s own party, and to the strains of “Celebrate good times, come on,” no less. But Romeo is, wouldn’t you know it, the son of the Capulets’ sworn enemies, the Montagues.

This cannot end well, and after a gang fight, the murders of the Capulet Tybalt and Montague Mercutio, and the banishment of Romeo, the inexorable denouement is set up.

The story holds up, no matter what you do with it, and fine acting helps as well. My favorite is Ben Chase’s Mercutio, who injects much-needed humor into this tragic story. But that’s not to slight troubadour-like Aaron Clifton Moten and lovely, hopeful Louisa Jacobson – excellent as the young lovers – nor Globe favorite Cornell Womack (remembered from last year’s Shakespeare festival) as the elder Capulet. Sofia Jean Gomez is convincing if short-tempered as Lady Capulet, Juliet’s exasperated mother.

Candy Buckley has the most annoying part – the Nurse, always a bothersome busybody – but she pushes it to the extreme here. There’s a lot of yelling going on here, and Nurse is responsible for more than her share.

Jesse J. Perez, the new head of the Old Globe/University of San Diego acting program) is perfect as Friar Laurence, who tries to help the couple out.

Composer Mark Bennett gets half a kudo for some of his original music. At first, the tinkly piano was reminiscent of TV soaps, but later he came across with more appropriate music.

This is a “Romeo and Juliet” for millennials, with modern costumes (by Judith Dolan) and lighting and sound designs (by Stephen Strawbridge and Sten Severson) to match.

Unless you saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Romeo and Juliet” in 2018, you’ve probably never seen an “R&J” anything like this one. That fact alone has its merits, and though it won’t be my favorite, seeing this great play is always a plus.

The details

“Romeo and Juliet” plays through September 15, 2019 at The Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

April 11-31: Tuesday through Sunday at 8 pm.

April 22-24: Shakespeare in the Garden at 8 pm.

Sept. 1-15: Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 7 pm; Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm