A tale of modern lovers, star-crossed but not quite tragic enough
When Romeo responds to the murder of his friend Mercutio by killing Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in the Huntington Theatre Company’s “Romeo and Juliet,’’ it represents not just the culmination of a bitter feud between their families but also the death of their newfound happiness — the moment when the stars permanently cross for these lovers.
This is not lost on Romeo, portrayed at the Huntington by George Hampe. “I have stained the childhood of our joy,’’ he laments.
That metaphor, evoking as it does the ardor and restless energy of youth, seems particularly apt in a production that is more or less defined by those qualities and that seems designed — for good and ill — to appeal to young audiences that have no truck with iambic pentameter. Mobilizing a large cast that includes a remarkable number of Boston’s best actors, director Peter DuBois generates an onrushing velocity in the first half of the play that lends his “Romeo and Juliet’’ a certain brio and even an air of excitement.
What is less palpable, however, is the overwhelming weight of tragedy that should leave us shattered by the end of Shakespeare’s play. That we are not devastated signals the problems that weaken this modern-dress “Romeo and Juliet,’’ which can be chalked up at least partly to the two lead performances.
Hampe gives it his all, but his Romeo exudes a callowness that makes him unpersuasive as a tragic hero. The actor’s overall affect and delivery — rife with very-2019 inflections such as a snarky “Uh, no’’ — undercut his efforts to summon a sense of genuine anguish when Romeo’s world falls apart.
Romeo’s famous “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?’’ soliloquy in the balcony scene should be a profound moment of revelation, the instant when Romeo realizes that his love for Juliet runs deeper than the physical attraction that drew them together at the masked ball. But Hampe launches into the soliloquy in a casual, offhand manner, as if Romeo has just spotted Juliet at the mall. Much of Hampe’s performance unfolds in a similar key.
Lily Santiago certainly makes for a touching Juliet, but there is little that is truly distinctive in her interpretation. When Gracyn Mix played Juliet in a Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of “Romeo and Juliet’’ on Boston Common two years ago, she instilled the character with a fierce independence of spirit that told us Juliet was nobody’s victim. Even though the CSC production was set in 14th century Italy, that lent Juliet a certain modernity.
The Huntington’s “Romeo and Juliet’’ takes place in the present, with a set by Wilson Chin that resembles a sterile conference room or congressional chamber, bedecked with flags that presumably signify the Montagues and the Capulets. Twelve rectangular shapes hang above the stage at the start of the play, adorned with bars and grids, like TV screens whose signals are scrambled. Indeed, one reads: “No signal.’’
DuBois has said he structured his “Romeo and Juliet’’ as a reflection of the “blind tribalism’’ that lies behind our current political polarization. But virtually any production of this play, whether set in the present or not, would send that message. After all, “Romeo and Juliet’’ dramatizes the deadly consequences when two sides refuse to seek common ground or recognize the humanity of the other. More specificity is needed for DuBois’s production to resonate with the present-day urgency he’s striving for.
The rest of his design team does superlative work, including Ilona Somogyi, whose costumes fairly burst with life, especially in the masked-ball scene, stylishly choreographed by Daniel Pelzig. (Somogyi’s costumes play a key role in DuBois’s evocative staging of the scene when Romeo and Juliet first meet, which I will not spoil by describing.) Also making important contributions are lighting designer Russell H. Champa and Obadiah Eaves, who composed arresting original music and handled the sound design.
But ultimately, much of the pleasure of this “Romeo and Juliet’’ is derived from the all-star team of a supporting cast DuBois has assembled. If Red Sox fans will forgive the analogy, it’s the local theater equivalent of the 1927 Yankees.
Just consider this illustrious roster: Nancy E. Carroll, a baleful, deadpan delight as Juliet’s nurse; Will Lyman as Friar Lawrence; Matthew J. Harris, who has excelled in such Huntington productions as “Topdog/Underdog’’ and does so again as a fiery Mercutio; Nael Nacer and Celeste Oliva as Lord and Lady Montague (Romeo’s parents); Maurice Emmanuel Parent and Marianna Bassham as Lord and Lady Capulet (Juliet’s parents); Ed Hoopman as the prince of Verona, struggling to keep the peace; Omar Robinson as Romeo’s cousin Benvolio; Kai Tshikosi as Balthasar, Romeo’s servingman; and the always-welcome Dale Place, hilariously doddering as another, unnamed servingman. In short, there is enough talent here to tackle the entire Shakespearean canon. (Also on hand are John Zdrojeski as Tybalt and Matthew Bretschneider as Paris, Juliet’s suitor.)
However, it can prove to be a double-edged sword when a supporting cast is of this exceptional caliber. Take the moment when Bassham, as Lady Capulet, mourns the slain Tybalt with a towering and harrowing display of grief. Alas, it is more emotionally wrenching than any scene involving Romeo and Juliet.
ROMEO AND JULIET
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Peter DuBois. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, Boston, through March 31. Tickets from $25, 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org