Romeo and Juliet

Theater
3 out of 5 stars
Romeo and Juliet
Photograph: Liz Lauren

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Alex Huntsberger

The greatest challenge for any production of Romeo and Juliet is the star-crossed lovers themselves: Like any teenagers in the throes of romance, they can easily get annoying. That’s not the case with Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s current production. As Romeo, Edgar Miguel Sanchez is a tender, swooning dope, the sort of young romantic that the phrase “sweet summer child” was invented to affectionately chide; as Juliet, Brittany Bellizeare is witty and headstrong, the kind of girl who seems too wise to fall in love, only to fall all the harder when she does. As the world closes in around them—and the bright summer colors of Mieka van der Ploeg’s Day-Glo costumes and Scott Davis’s street-mural set give way to a yawning black void—it’s hard not to hope that, just this once, these two crazy kids will make it out all right. 

They don’t, of course. And as Barbara Gaines’s production, set in modern-day Chicago, proceeds toward their doom, it wades into depths that it’s unequipped to plumb. From its first moments, when Gaines reassigns the “bite my thumb” confrontation to old Capulet (James Newcomb) and Montague (Dale Rivera), it’s clear that this production means to say something about this city, about violence, about legacies of hate. But that desire doesn’t translate into a clear point of view. The characters are draped in empty signifiers: a polo shirt and khakis for Capulet, a Ronaldo Messi jersey and sneakers for Montague, popped collars for Tybalt (Sam Pearson), a neon cross sign for Friar Lawrence (Darlene Hope), home-healthcare-worker scrubs for the Nurse (Betsy Aidem). Both the Montague and Capulet households are studiously mixed-race; Mercutio (Nate Burger) is a military veteran with PTSD. Giddily mixing all these elements but avoiding the core questions—like racism and poverty—the play is left with nothing but a vague gesture towards anti-violence. 

This hesitation is understandable: Using a Shakespeare play to make bold, programmatic statements about Chicagoland strife is almost guaranteed to fail, or at least trivialize the issues at play. But if having an actual point of view runs such a high risk, then why set the play in Chicago at all? Perhaps the answer lies in the play’s smaller and more pleasurable touches. Following a backyard barbecue masquerade, the balcony scene is performed mere yards away from a drunk and slumbering Capulet, while the lovers’ brief reunion before Romeo’s banishment takes place along the (undeniably romantic) lakefront. These moments reflect the city as it is actually experienced, instead of the funhouse-mirror version that so much of the rest of the material is subjected to. This production gets its young lovers right, but it gets Chicago mostly wrong. 

Chicago Shakespeare Theater. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Barbara Gaines. With Edgar Miguel Sanchez, Brittany Bellizeare. Running time: 2hrs 30mins. One intermission.

By: Alex Huntsberger

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