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Words by Molly Cox

I never get tired of seeing Romeo and Juliet, with it’s timeless themes and tragic trajectory. Like any masterpiece, you can always find something new in this play, and Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production, directed by Alan Paul, is really special.

STC’s Romeo and Juliet is set in modern Verona, but Shakespeare’s script is unaltered. The leads, Ayana Workman as Juliet and Andrew Veenstra as Romeo, capture the wide-eyed joy of falling in love for the first time, and the violent despair and heartache that follow when this love is threatened.

As STC’s Artistic director, Michael Kahn said, “We see this play through the eyes of the world we live in.” Workman’s costumes (with the exception of some fabulous lingerie), hair, and mannerisms make her look more childlike, but after all, Juliet was just 13 years old. To me this is the one problem with thrusting Romeo and Juliet (written in the 1590’s) into modern times. In the theater you suspend disbelief, but seeing a 13-year- old female character as a symbol of sex, passion, and true love is difficult if not uncomfortable no matter what, especially when the actress looks as young as Workman does. Given that instead of swords, the men carry guns and switchblades, and a DJ mixes thumping dance music at the Capulet ball, why can’t Juliet’s age be modernized as well?

Juliet gains strength as the play comes to its tragic conclusion, which Workman acts out beautifully. With nothing left to lose, Juliet is able to defy her father and risk everything to be with Romeo again. Even if you have seen Romeo and Juliet a hundred times, you always hope that somehow Juliet will wake up from her drug induced sleep before Romeo kills himself, and so the famous death scene is always heartbreaking.

A true delight in this play is Jeffrey Carlson as a flamboyant Mercutio. Carlson was by far the most successful at putting a unique spin on his character. Mercutio is  the most interesting character in this version of Romeo and Juliet, and Carlson shows the character in a completely new light. Reinventing a 400-year- old character from a play that’s been produced countless times is quite an achievement.

Another stand out is Inga Ballard, who excels at providing comic relief as Juliet’s Nurse. In the scene where the Nurse meets Romeo for the first time to see if he is good enough for Juliet, Ballard feels up Veenstra’s impressive physique and gives new meaning to the line- “Lord, Lord, she’ll be a happy woman.” Ron Menzel also gives a passionate performance as the misguided but compassionate Friar Lawrence. The beautiful but imposing all-red set designed by Dane Laffrey swallows the star-crossed lovers like a cave drenched in violence, blood, and passion. It’s a love nest that literally becomes a tomb. Perhaps the production team was inspired by Romeo’s description of Juliet’s crypt:

“Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death,
Gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth,
Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,
And in despite I’ll cram thee with more food.”

The monochromatic stage does not allow you to forget that you are here to see a lot of murder, suicide, and hyperbolic professions of love. Even with the brilliant lighting design, the set does not transition from nightclub, to bedroom, to street corner, to tomb very well. The actors never leave the red cave of doom. In some versions of the play the darkness of the second half of Romeo and Juliet can be lost, but STC’s production never lets us forget it. Romeo and Juliet is as much about death as it is about love, and STC’s production does justice to its dark side.

See Romeo and Juliet through Nov. 6 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh Street NW. For tickets visit shakespearetheatre.org