Sean Graney’s new adaptation of the Romeo and Juliet story follows some patterns that could seem familiar to viewers of the director’s work with the Hypocrites. Just looking at recent years, Graney’s Romeo Juliet echoes elements of his distillations of Oedipus, Pirates of Penzance and Sophocles’ surviving plays: It involves a downsized cast making thematic hay of doubling roles and a gleeful—occasionally verging on juvenile—interpolation of modern vernacular into classic texts.
Romeo Juliet, though, incorporates a couple of new wrinkles. Graney takes two texts as his sources: both Shakespeare’s familiar script and Felice Romani’s less ubiquitous libretto for Bellini’s 1830 opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi, based on Italian sources. And the director allows his sometimes sprawling stagings to be physically constrained by his actors, who double as the production’s designers.
The action is confined to, as one of the actors puts it, “some kind of ’70s basement circus tent” in which the audience is crammed into banquette seats on four sides of a 12-foot-square white shag carpet, upon which Walter Briggs, Lindsey Gavel, Tien Doman and Zeke Sulkes enact the star-cross’d romance, thrillingly proximate sword fights and all.
At first, the Hypocrites’ production threatens a deadly tweeness. The entrance to the performance space is preceded by a service of tea, poured by the cast members at gingham-lined picnic tables, and the use of 20th-century pop tunes spinning on a mod turntable seems at first like a cheap form of commentary.
But as Romeo Juliet progresses, Graney’s use of the multiple texts (Shakespeare’s, Romani’s and his own) provides increasingly surprising resonances, particularly in a gut-wrenching repurposing of Shakespeare’s morning-after scene. The four actors draw attention to the discoveries they and their director have made without becoming ostentatious. At this tragedy’s climax, the pitiful sight I thought I knew well brought new tears to my eyes.