The current production of “Romeo & Juliet” by The Curtain, Jersey City’s classical theater company, clocks in at over 2 ½ hours, even though director and adapter Sean Hagerty has taken several liberties with the text. To its credit, and despite the theater’s uncomfortable folding chairs, the evening moves along quickly, and offers everything you would want from this particular play: Poetry, prose and top-notch performances; romance, of course; well-choreographed fight scenes (and three all-too-Shakespearean murders); and even (with a nod to the Nimbus Dance Company, whose space hosts the production) a high-spirited dance number.
The play has been set at the dawn of the Jazz Age, which introduces 20th Century technology (a record player, a radio and, importantly, a pistol) to the story and allows the cast to look sharp in period suits and flapper dresses. But the cast speaks Shakespeare’s lines as written: We’re still in Verona, Italy; Juliet remains 14 years old; money is measured in ducats; and Friar Laurence communicates with the banished Romeo by hand-carried letter (instead of picking up the phone, which could have averted the play’s infamously tragic ending).
If it weren’t Shakespeare, the audience might well be left shaking their heads, but suspension of disbelief is baked into this cake. After all, we’re supposed to believe that Romeo and Juliet meet and fall rapturously in love at first sight, get married the next day, and commit suicide shortly thereafter. Time has proven that this story, however far-fetched, works; the only question with each new production lies in the execution.
On that count, The Curtain has mounted an imaginative and compelling version of “Romeo & Juliet” that succeeds largely on the strength of its cast, led by the young Italian actress Anita Pomario as Juliet. She brings a girlish energy, a sass and vitality to the role that is more tomboy than Disney princess, more tween than woman. This Juliet has spunk.
One of the challenges with Shakespeare involves reciting dialogue whose overfamiliarity has rendered it into clichés; how do actors make those lines sound fresh? Pomario’s delivery of the “good night, good night, parting is such sweet sorrow” speech shines in that regard; she made me feel like I was hearing those words for the first time. Juliet must, in turns, be passionate about Romeo, defiant to her parents, cunningly clever and yet devastated by loss. Pomario nails it all.
She is ably abetted by her Romeo, Aria Shahghasemi, who has the smoldering good looks of a young Penn Badgely and handles his lines with deft assuredness. He brings a brash quality to the role, not to mention a rock-solid physique (seen in a shirtless bedroom scene with Juliet).
Andrew Sellon (whom you may recognize from several villain roles on Fox TV’s “Gotham”) brightens every scene he’s in as Friar Laurence, and Christianna Nelson makes worthy use of the dramatic opportunities afforded her part as Juliet’s Nurse. Tucker Lewis plays Mercutio as a damaged World War I veteran whose sidearm proves deadly in his tussle with Tybalt (Miles Segura), and Mark Torres makes an evil and domineering Capulet in a gangster’s three-piece suit.
Hagerty’s makes several important changes in his adaptation, forgoing both the opening prologue (“Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene …”) and the Prince’s solemn final soliloquy. In fact, the Prince has been edited out of the play entirely, as have Romeo’s parents, the Montagues.
Instead of that famous prologue, the play opens at the Capulet crypt, where the police are taking Friar Laurence into custody after the discovery of two dead bodies. The play then begins as a flashback, almost a murder mystery: How did this tragedy happen?
The Nimbus Dance Theater is just that, a dance space; there is no stage, just a dance floor flanked on three sides by rows of the aforementioned folding chairs and a black curtain at the rear. For this production, a large door has been erected there, and that’s the sum of the stage design (apart from a few small pieces of furniture that come and go). The actors move freely across the open space, providing a sense of intimacy and immediateness. (If possible, sit facing the back wall for the best view.)
Sound design includes background noises that range from chirping crickets to police sirens, to interstitial music from the 1920s, but the less of that, the better; the actors speak at conversational volume in a room not designed for acoustics, so be forewarned that some of the dialogue can be difficult to make out. That’s a quibble, though; for the most part, the actors deliver those tongue-twisting lines with impeccable diction.
Kudos must also go to Brad Lemons and Harumi Elders, who choreographed the rock ’em sock ’em fight scenes and the Jazz Age jitterbugging, respectively; both work marvelously well and make ingenious use of the space.
“Everybody dies”: That’s the rule of thumb in Shakespeare’s tragedies. And that’s what happens here. I won’t write about the final death scenes except to note that Shahghasemi does milk his a bit, and Hagerty uses a series of rapid-fire blackouts to take the audience through the series of tragic misunderstandings that end with Romeo and Juliet’s suicides.
The production ends where it began, with the police dragging away poor Friar Laurence. Gone are Shakespeare’s prologue (which includes the death of Romeo’s mother by a broken heart) and, to me, the play’s most important message: When Capulet and Montague realize that their senseless feud has led to the death of their children. Capulet asks to take Montague’s hand, and Montague vows to erect a statue to the memory of Juliet. We’re also denied the Prince’s summation:
A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
Shakespeare never explains the Capulet/Montague feud, so perhaps removing it as an afterthought makes some sense. We’re left instead with contemplating the story of two beautiful young people and their ugly deaths.
“Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact,” wrote another poet, centuries after Shakespeare. And with “Romeo & Juliet,” everything that dies someday comes back, to our everlasting benefit.
The Curtain’s production of “Romeo & Juliet” runs through Oct. 22 at the Nimbus Arts Center in Jersey City. Visit thecurtain.org.
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