“Romeo and Juliet” may be the most famous love story in Western literature, centered on two doomed young lovers in the throes of a transcendent passion as boundless and deep as the sea. But what makes Shakespeare’s play so heartbreaking is the backdrop on which the story unfolds — the bitter enmity between their feuding families, the Montagues and Capulets, that drives the star-crossed couple toward a tragic fate.
You need only scroll through your social media feed, peruse the headlines of the day, or flip on the television to see how tribalism and political and cultural polarization are fracturing the ties that bind us together as a society. Meanwhile, politicians and cable news hosts stoke the fires of people’s ferocious anger toward their perceived enemies.
Our current tendency toward blinkered tribalism is what propelled Huntington Theatre Company artistic director Peter DuBois to program “Romeo and Juliet,” which he set in a modern version of Verona. The production, the first Shakespeare play staged at the Huntington in nearly eight years, opens on Friday and runs through March 31 at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, starring George Hampe and Lily Santiago as the teenage duo.
DuBois knew he was on the right track in selecting “Romeo and Juliet” when he saw the results of a national survey in which more than 20 percent of Republicans and Democrats each characterized members of the other party as “evil”; and upward of 54 percent described the other as “spiteful” and “ignorant.”
“The play speaks to our contemporary moment in a very direct way,” DuBois says one recent afternoon during a break in rehearsals. “Tribalism by its nature implies prejudice, superiority, sticking with ‘your kind,’ not going over to the other side to engage or talk with them. But then in the middle of this story comes two people who really reject that binary and fall in love.”
A few months ago, DuBois was watching an actor audition for the role of Tybalt in a scene where the character spits out his contempt at Romeo after the young Montague is caught secretly crashing the Capulet’s ball. “Now by the stock and honor of my kin,/To strike him dead I hold it not a sin,” Tybalt declares.
“Basically he’s saying that just for showing up at our party, I hold it not a sin to kill this person,” DuBois says. “This small speech really hit a nerve for me.”
While Romeo claims no ill intent, Tybalt’s first impulse is toward violence. He holds a cartoonishly villainous view of the Montagues and can’t imagine them as real individuals outside the deep-seated hatred provoked by the feud.
“That feels closer to the period we’re living in. All you have to do is turn on the radio or television of any political stripe to hear people express deep contempt toward people they see as their adversaries and use words like ‘evil’ simply because a person has a certain label attached to their name.”
Still, DuBois says, “In no way do I want to make the production sound like a buzzkill reflection of our world. Because it’s not! It’s really about this hopeful relationship that sits at the center of the story, and it’s incredibly sexy and romantic. Out of all this ugliness comes this great beauty.”
Indeed, says Hampe, “There’s something so pure about their love, and I think their desire to not subscribe to the hate of the world is pretty bold.”
“What’s exciting about Romeo is that he’s this playful, lovable character, but there’s also a kind of naivete that comes with him rooting his entire worldview in the idea that love can conquer everything,” Hampe says. “How’s he going to live when he’s surrounded by a hateful world? What can that flower do in such tumultuous soil?”
That contempt for one’s perceived foes, says Nancy E. Carroll, who plays Juliet’s Nurse and confidante, “trickles down into the children and the next generation and the next generation. It reminds me of that wonderful lyric from ‘South Pacific’: ‘You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.’ ”
Rehearsing the balcony scene between Romeo and Juliet, which comes after their first meeting at the ball, was incredibly illuminating, DuBois says, because Romeo has spent the first part of the play pining over Rosaline, who rebuffs his amorous advances.
“Then all of a sudden he meets Juliet, and she’s speaking in the same poetic rhythms that he’s speaking in,” he says. “She’s speaking about love the way he speaks about love. She can complete his thoughts as romantically and sometimes more brilliantly than he can. This is a huge part of why they click. Yes, there’s something pheromonal going on, but they’re also cut from the same cloth. They’re both desperate romantics.”
Romeo’s counsel, Friar Laurence, and Juliet’s confidante, the Nurse, get swept up in the young lovers’ romance, and dangerously attempt to shepherd it along. The Friar even naively hopes that it could lead to a rapprochement between the two warring clans, DuBois says. “They see the purity of this relationship and believe it transcends the Tybalts of the world,” he says.
For the Nurse, Carroll says, “she’s so invested in Juliet’s happiness that she dares to take the kind of chance she’s taking with her position by going behind the family’s back and seeking out Romeo and helping her marry him. But this child is everything to her.”
Will Lyman, who plays Friar Laurence, says his character and the Nurse are not accustomed to seeing this pure, unadulterated love blossoming in the cynical world around them. “We’re in a world of arranged marriages and marriages of convenience and marriages of power and economy,” he says. “So when we suddenly come across this true love —”
“We nurture it!” Carroll says, finishing the thought.
The scenic design, by Wilson Chin, and costumes, by Ilona Somogyi, reflect what DuBois calls a vibe of “elegant, sexy globalism.” “This is a world of big spenders, lots of flash, and a very global, interconnected community of people,” he says. “Not only are these two houses ‘both alike in dignity,’ these houses are also really rich. So the sets and costumes reflect that it’s a high-flying society, and these are people who control the levers of power in this world.”
While the staging has “its feet firmly planted on the ground of the here and now,” DuBois says, he doesn’t want the heavy themes of tribalism and social division to weigh down the overall tone. So he’s also aiming to imbue it with a streak of buoyancy and even hopefulness, despite the tragic outcome.
Wonders Lily Santiago, “How much pain, how much hurt, how much loss does everyone have to endure in order for this switch to flip and for people to start talking and to realize that change needs to happen?”
ROMEO AND JULIET
By William Shakespeare, directed by Peter DuBois, presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At Huntington Avenue Theatre, March 1-31. Tickets start at $25; 617-266-0800; www.huntingtontheatre.org