The script for the version of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” that is currently being presented, in its world premiere, at the Two River Theater in Red Bank is described as a “modern verse translation” by Hansol Jung. But don’t worry, the beauty of Shakespeare language is largely untouched.
“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name” remains unchanged. So does “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet”; “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?”; and “A pair of star-crossed lovers.”
Most of Jung’s changes are minor and designed just to make the lines more easily understandable to modern audiences. “Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face,” for instance, becomes “Read through the verses of young Paris’ face.” “Dug,” a now-archaic way of saying “breast,” becomes “boob.” And “Her vestal livery is but sick and green” becomes “Her vestal gown’s sick and green with envy,” to avoid the archaic “livery” and make the meaning of “green” clearer.
In its staging, though, this “Romeo and Juliet” — presented by the National Asian American Theatre Company in partnership with Two River Theater, co-directed by Jung and Dustin Wills, and featuring an all-Asian cast — does represent a radically new way of approaching one of Shakespeare’s best-known tragedies. This may not be the most moving production of “Romeo and Juliet” you will ever seen: It’s more likely to provoke belly laughs than tears. But it would be hard to top it for energy and inventiveness, thanks to its wild humor, its eclectic music (featuring original music by Brian Quijada), its crazily cluttered set design (by Junghyun Georgia Lee) and its eccentric costumes (by Mariko Ohigashi).
Surely, this is the first production of the play to prominently feature Prince’s “Purple Rain” — used in place of a well known song from Shakespeare’s day — and have a character wear the kind of red, plastic, futuristic hat favored by the new-wave band Devo. Romeo (Major Curda) is imagined as a sensitive, guitar-strumming singer-songwriter; Mercutio (Jose Gamo) as a strutting rapper.
The stalwart earnestness of Romeo and Dorcas Leung’s Juliet ground the play, as it should in any production of “Romeo and Juliet.” Meanwhile, Daniel Liu emerges as the comedic star with his portrayal of a ridiculously fussy and imperious Lady Capulet.
All the actors — even Curda and Leung — play multiple roles, sitting around the theater-in-the-round stage (a first for Two River Theater) when not directly taking part in the action. Before the play even starts, various actors come out and casually chat with audience members, and the pre-show message — asking people to turn off their cellphones, and thanking sponsors, and so on — was delivered as a song.
There is a sense of bold chaos to this whole production. And, frankly, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The actors are in constant motion, and the in-the-round setting means sometimes they are in a good position for you to see and hear, and sometimes (depending on where you are sitting), they are not. Jokes — both verbal ones, and visual ones — come and go fast and furiously; it’s hard if not impossible to catch them all.
Perhaps, though, the frantic pace will slow down a bit in the course of the Red Bank run, and during the run that is scheduled for New York, at the Off-Broadway Lynn F. Angelson Theater, May 9 to June 3. I’d love to see the co-directors and cast members take a little more care to make sure each joke —and each bit of wordplay, and each plot twist — lands, and resonates, before moving on to the next one.
But even as it is now, this is an ambitious and largely fulfilling attempt to reinvent Shakespeare for modern, open-minded audiences.
The Two River Theater in Red Bank presents “Romeo and Juliet” through April 30. Visit tworivertheater.org.
For information on the upcoming Off-Broadway run, visit the National Asian American Theatre Company website, naatco.org.
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