Romeo and Juliet - The Underlings Theatre Co

Romeo and Juliet - The Underlings Theatre Co

 Photo credit: Julian Goetz.  Pictured: Johnny Le and Chelsea Evered

Photo credit: Julian Goetz.  Pictured: Johnny Le and Chelsea Evered

Romeo and Juliet – The Underlings Theatre Co.

Review by James Wilkinson

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Presented by Underlings Theatre Co. Directed by Lelaina Vogel. Voice and Text Coaching: Daniel Thomas Blackwell. Scenic Design: Christine Williamson. Costume Design: Rachael Linker. Lighting Design: Evyn Newton. Sound Design: Joshua Garcia. 

Do I even need to provide a summary of the plot to Romeo and Juliet? The details of Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers has seemingly seeped down into the marrow of western civilization. Try as you might, you can’t escape it. Even if you managed to somehow get through high school without reading the original text, you would be forgiven for thinking you knew the story by seeing any of the hundreds of adaptations and riffs on the story in movies, books, operas, television, ballets, musicals, and just about every other form of media out there. The ubiquity of the story in popular culture creates an interesting problem for any theatre company that might decide to take a stab at staging the play. How do you present a play when everyone coming thinks that they already know everything? It’s a challenge that the recently formed Underlings Theatre Co has taken up with their new production of the classic play, now running at Chelsea Theatre Works. 

Just in case you slept through English class, here’s a quick refresher of Shakespeare’s version of the tale. The play opens in fair Verona, where two families, the Montagues and the Capulets, are locked in a bitter blood feud. Then one day Romeo (Johnny Le), a Montague, catches a glimpse of Juliet (Chelsea Evered), a Capulet, at a party and they fall head over heels in love. The two conspire to marry behind their families’ backs and do only for disaster to strike. In a moment of vengeful rage Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, and is banished from Verona. The two lovers attempt to reunite but a series of misadventures conspire to keep them apart as the plot barrels towards tragedy. 

There are a lot of different ideas at play in this productions, and I think that some of them work a bit better than others. One of the smartest choices that director Lelaina Vogel makes is placing the action of the play in a high school. A lot of productions will play the characters as being in at least their mid-twenties, but as written, Romeo and Juliet are supposed to be in their early teens. The characters’ mood swings and impulsive natures make a lot more sense when you remember just how young they really are. Keeping the protagonists on the younger end of the spectrum allows the audience to focus on the fact that this is a play (in part) about the rush that comes being young, falling in love for the first time and perhaps not making the best decisions. This is perfectly captured in the moment Romeo and Juliet first meet, which I think is one of the strongest moments of staging in the play. Vogel has her leads lock eyes over a punch bowl and begin a cycle of bashfully turning away, gathering the courage to speak, only to turn away again. It may be something of a cliché, but it’s a cliché that works. It that makes the audience sit up and say, “Yes, I know exactly what that feeling is like.” 

The show borrows its aesthetic from 80s teen movies such as Heathers and the work of John Hugh which provides some great visual gags. I’m not likely to soon forget Lady Capulet’s first entrance, being pushed onstage riding an exercise bike and wearing the most 80’s fitness outfit that I have ever seen. Much has also been made in the advertising about the Underlings’ attempt to provide better representation on stage by casting women in male roles, men in women’s roles and assembling a cast from across the gender spectrum. Personally, given how many of his plays riff on the idea gender as performance and on the roles of men and women, I think Shakespeare would heartily approve of that decision. It’s one to be commended. 

In fact, watching the show you get the feeling that the entire cast has really come together for this production and are giving it their all. Margot Buckley delivers a rousing performance as Mercutio. As the titular coupe, Johnny Le and Chelsea Evered keep finding the new angles for their characters so that they feel like real flesh and blood teenagers. The play would fall apart if we didn’t believe that the two were really in love and they succeed in selling the romance every time they gaze across the room at each other. 

What I think is less successful in this production is the choice to deliver the text in the Early Modern English Original Pronunciation. For those of us who are not linguists, this means having the actors attempt to reconstruct the accent that Shakespeare’s original actors would have used in the late 1500s. For example, the word ‘flower’ could be pronounced in a way that sounds a bit more like ‘floor.’ While I applaud the attempt to try something so daring and the actors’ commitment to learning the dialect, this element didn’t quite work for me. My ears never fully adjusted to the accent, so very little of Shakespeare’s verbal humor comes through and I frequently found myself struggling to understand sections of dialogue. For me, this robbed the play of a lot of its potential power as the story barrels towards its tragic end.

I appreciated the ambition of Underlings Theatre Co’s Romeo and Juliet, even if I’m a bit mixed on the final result. It’s fantastic that such a young company is willing to take such a leap with their work and to try and offer audiences something different. My hope is that they keep swinging for the fences as they continue to stake out their own corner of the Boston theatre scene. We’ll all be the richer for it. 

Romeo and Juliet is presented at Chelsea Theatre Works Black Box Theater, February 23-March 3, 2018. For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.underlingstheatre.com

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