PROVO — There is nothing more wearisome in the theatre than a production of Romeo and Juliet that takes itself too seriously. Fortunately, BYU’s production of the play, under the direction of Megan Sanborn Jones, is engaging, entertaining and smart. It presents itself as a self-conscious observation of Romeo and Juliet’s unfortunate stage history which has led millions of would-be audience members to wrongly believe that it is the sappiest of romantic tragedies in Western literature.
Taking cue from the multitude of references in the play to money and its corresponding ills, the play is set in America’s Gilded Age. However, staging the play at this moment in history also encourages the audience to think of Oscar Wilde’s Britain and his mocking theatrical social commentary. In fact, a Wildean character of sorts is added to the production. Peter, played by dramaturg Allan Davis, annotates the scenes by providing information about society in the late nineteenth century in a manner that reveals how trivial, materialistic, and ridiculous it could be. Similarly, the production’s stylization of the excessive violence and emotional romance found in Romeo and Juliet invites the audience to rethink their expectations of the play and to consider the possibility that it is, as recent scholars have suggested, as much a comedy as it is a tragedy. In fact, laughs abound in the production, and humor is present in even the most suggestively grave moments, leading at times to an appropriate audience discomfort. As Sanborn Jones asserts in the program, the subject matter of the drama is, when really examined, disturbing. She acknowledges this and the undeniable presence of the title characters’ melodramatic passions and presents the audience with a very dark comedy, one which does not aggrandize suicidal love.
Conceptual considerations aside, the production is well-staged. The acting is large enough to fit the space which, in addition to being aesthetically pleasing and functionally designed, provides a fitting backdrop for the impressive costumes. The show’s choreography is especially noteworthy both in the play proper and the scene transitions where the striking combination of music and movement provide much-appreciated quiet supplementation to the verbosity of the play. This is not to say that Shakespeare’s verse is made tiresome in the production. In fact, the recitation is well-paced, and, for the most part, the actors have a firm grip on the poetry. Admittedly, there are times when they are owned by the words and noticeably intent on surviving to the last beat in the iambic pentameter. So, too, there are occasional transitions from effective to affected acting. On the whole, however, the cast gives a fine presentation of their craft and is very capable of reminding audiences of why Shakespeare is so great.
Whether you are a seasoned Bard devotee or haven’t seen Shakespeare since high school, this is a production to see. It is playing at BYU Harrison Fine Arts Center’s Pardoe Theatre until December 4th, and you will likely be in good company. My guess is tickets will go fast.