“Romeo and Juliet” is arguably the most famous love story of all time, but at its heart is a mystery that’s never been solved.
Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet are doomed because their families are locked in a bloody feud. But why? Why is each house intent on murdering the other? Shakespeare could have worked an explanation into the plot, but he chose not to. It’s a choice that amplifies the tragedy. Bloodshed is tragic. Bloodshed without reason, infinitely more so.
That’s a point well-made in Chicago Shakespeare’s contemporary spin on “Romeo and Juliet,” which opened Friday night at the Navy Pier venue.
Director Barbara Gaines’ overall concept is bold, so much so that her kaleidoscopic visuals sometimes threaten to overpower the humans on stage.
The set, lighting and the costume design (by Scott Davis, Aaron Spivey and Mieka Van Der Ploeg, respectively) are a barrage of vivid, almost glowing color. Scenes end with Las Vegas-worthy, staccato bursts of light so bright that blazing afterimages remain even when the action has moved on. It’s an unsettling effect — your pupils can’t quite adjust fast enough to keep up with the images on stage.
Van Der Ploeg’s costuming adds to the unease because there are no obvious visual signifiers of Capulet and Montague. When they get violent, the lack of obvious differences make Rick Sordelet’s hyper-violent fight choreography seem all the more senseless. And Davis’ set (inspired by famed Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall, to whom the production is dedicated) is like a rainbow shattered and reformed to reflect the harsh, sharp edges of the world around it.
But Gaines leaves her strongest imprint on the dialogue. The opening street fight (set on a basketball court under towering street lights) isn’t instigated by the brash young men of Shakespeare’s text, but by Juliet’s father, the white-haired “Mr. Capulet” (James Newcomb). The alteration shifts the altercation’s blame to the generation that came before Romeo (Edgar Miguel Sanchez) and Juliet (Brittany Bellizeare). Despite the efforts of Romeo’s friend Benvolio (Cage Sebastian Pierre), the ballgame becomes a knife fight. There’s a later scene when Mr. Capulet restrains the sociopathically short-tempered Tybalt (Sam Pearson) from turning a party into a bloodbath; in this production, it seems like Mr. Capulet’s motives are more about cunning strategy than peace-keeping.
Romeo and Juliet are, of course, at the nexus of this swirl of hatred. Their love story has always demanded some serious suspension of disbelief: The two meet, woo, wed within 24 hours. They decide to (spoiler alert if you don’t know how tragedy ends) die for each other shortly thereafter.
Romeo is especially worthy of side-eye, since he’s in love with another Capulet girl, Rosaline, when the play opens, and spends his entire first scene talking about how he’ll die without her. A few hours later, he’s forgotten Rosaline and is using similarly lovesick language to describe Juliet. They exchange a scant handful of words (albeit really great words — that balcony scene is iconic for a reason) when they decide to marry. It’s a tough sell and Sanchez and Bellizeare don’t have the chemistry to close it. Their fervor reads more like infatuation than enduring love.
Even so, Bellizeare and Sanchez understand Shakespeare’s language and how to make it as immediately accessible as a text message. Bellizeare’s command of the Shakespeare rhythms give the words a sparkling clarity. Sanchez’ Romeo oozes that requisite youthful fire. In Romeo, you can see the brazen impetuousness of someone still young enough to secretly believe they’re immortal.
The supporting players are often far more intriguing. When Nate Burger’s quicksilver Mercutio talks of Queen Mab and her eerie powers, an uneasy silence falls over his previously raucous friends. If there’s a conduit to the spirit world among Romeo’s friends, it’s Mercutio. When Julian Parker’s noble Paris learns he won’t be marrying his beloved Juliet, you’re heartbroken for him. And as the Friar who marries Romeo and Juliet and then hatches their disastrous escape plan, Darlene Hope creates a truly holy person who isn’t above telling clueless secular folk to take a seat.
Gaines ends the production with the aptly named Benvolio and his wordless, emphatic cry for peace. Like the cause of the feud, Shakespeare provides no answers about how — or even if — it ends. Gaines’ conclusion is emphatic but similarly ambiguous. Benvolio’s example might put an end to knife fights. But who’s to say guns won’t come next?
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.