Remember “No Fear Shakespeare,” the SparkNotes study guide that provides a contemporary translation of the Bard’s works?
That is, in a manner of speaking, what playwright Hansol Jung (“Wolf Play,” “Wild Goose Dreams,” “Cardboard Piano”) did with her verse adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” which will have its world premiere at the Two River Theater in Red Bank, April 8-30.
Shakespeare “is making topical references about the day that everybody in the groundlings would totally know,” says Justin Waldman, Two River’s artistic director. “What Hansol is doing is moving these jokes and the intent of them into the modern day lexicon so that we don’t need the footnotes next to it to understand.”
Aside from the alterations that Jung made to the piece, Two River’s 350-seat proscenium Joan and Robert M. Rechnitz Theater will morph into a theater-in-the-round — an immersive experience never tried before there. Not to mention, this production features an Asian American cast, thanks to a partnership with the National Asian American Theatre Company).
This is truly not your grandma’s staging of the classic tale of star-crossed lovers.
Although much of the production is word-for-word from Shakespeare, Jung’s modern touches add clarity while still following iambic pentameter. Take this famous line from “Romeo and Juliet,” for example: “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds, towards Phoebus’ lodging.” Phoebus is another name for the Greek god Apollo. So in Jung’s version, “Phoebus” is replaced with “Apollo.” “It still scans in the same iambs, but we’ll understand without a definition,” says Waldman.
Jung’s modifications also include adjusting a joke about cholera that simply wouldn’t land with present-day audiences and swapping out a 1600s nursery rhyme with one that is well-known today.
These changes, throughout the 2 ½-hour production, “afford a way in,” says Waldman. “I think it’s just so incredible when artists engage with Shakespeare and try to figure out how the conversation between this 400-year-old playwright in England becomes a living, breathing, amazing, visceral conversation in 2023.”
Waldman, who is something of a Shakespearehead (he most recently worked at the Old Globe theater in San Diego and oversaw its Shakespeare festival), insists that “for a play that is thought of as the quintessential tragic love story, it is exceedingly funny.”
Everybody knows how “Romeo & Juliet” ends, he explains. “It’s an interesting idea of commentary — a world that is so steeped in violence, but it’s so full of love, can hold those two things at the same time. And in between, that is where comedy lies. There are tons and tons of jokes and that’s one of the fun things about being able to do the translation. A lot of these bawdy jokes, in Shakespeare’s verse, kind of go over our heads.”
It’s up to the nine actors in this production to encapsulate it all — the love, the violence and the comedy.
One notable thing about this cast is that they are all AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) theater artists. “It is a fascinating process to be able to see people engage with roles which they have traditionally been excluded from,” says Waldman. Throughout the audition process, the actors tried out for several different parts. “(It’s) really fun and exciting to be able to represent the totality of these actors,” adds Waldman.
Jung, who is co-directing along with Dustin Wills, assembled a troupe of actors that are breaking the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience. The cast is also leaning into theatrical convention by adapting their base costumes and adding props while onstage. “It’s a very forthright style of saying, we are actors, we are performing, this is a play. We’re going on this journey as a group,” says Waldman.
Music is incorporated throughout the show as well. The performers sing and play guitar. Looping machines are used to keep a beat going.
Then there is the custom-built seating. Audience members will be positioned 360 degrees around the playing space. “The stage itself is going to be lowered,” says Waldman, “and then risers built up on the upstage side of the stage, so there’ll be banks of seating on both sides of the proscenium line.”
After the show closes at Two River, it will move off-Broadway to the Classic Stage Company in New York. That space is much smaller than Two River, so the decision was made to build the show in the round from the start.
Two River regulars who are used to seeing the Rechnitz Theater in its traditional proscenium form will have a unique experience.
“It’s a fun thing to be able to say, ‘Hey, you’ve come to this theater a bunch, but now, look at it from another way,’ ” says Waldman.
The Two River Theater in Red Bank will present “Romeo and Juliet,” April 8-30. Visit tworivertheater.org.
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