Arguably the most famous and beloved play of William Shakespeare’s monumental career, “Romeo and Juliet” receives a fresh retelling from the University’s Department of Theater and Drama. The story of two star-crossed lovers is playing through Sunday at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater in the Michigan League. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the classic tragedy is being staged as both a love story and as a reflection on the tempestuous, unrestrained spirit of youth.
For those unfamiliar with the play, “Romeo and Juliet” follows the story of its titular characters, who are descended from families sworn to hate each other. Seeking to overcome the feud, the couple plans to elope. Fate, however, has other plans for the lovers as coincidence and bad timing ultimately leads the pair to tragedy.
Directing the University production is Music Prof. Philip Kerr. Among the many difficult decisions involved in staging such a well-known and adored production was deciding which parts of the lengthy text to cut. Kerr wanted to maintain the thematic weight of “Romeo and Juliet” while shortening the performance to two and a half hours. As a result, the scenes move rapidly, capturing the frenetic urgency of the characters and highlighting the vibrancy of the text.
Adding to that 400-years-strong vitality are the elaborately choreographed fight and dance scenes. “Romeo and Juliet” has one large ball scene and at least two duels, but these elements are often staged with some reserve. Kerr promises that these scenes will be fully rendered and exciting for the audience in order to capture the passion of youth.
In undertaking such an iconic production — there have been over 20 film adaptations and countless theatrical stagings — there is a great challenge to bring something unique and surprising to the audience. “I think any production creates its own identity,” Kerr said. Kerr decided to focus on the conflict between the youthful central characters and the adult world that constrains them to put his own spin on the work.
The play is staged in fascist Italy to reinforce these themes of the adult-centric societal rigidity against which the young lovers rail. It’s a world in which love and the independence necessary to declare one’s love without bound, is a revolutionary idea.
—Sarah Segerlind contributed to this report.