The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual summer Free For All is fast becoming the best cultural tradition in D.C. Not only does it offer an egalitarian chance for anyone and everyone to take in some live theatre at the low, low price of zero dollars, it gives productions that rare gift: a second chance to make a first impression.
Two years ago, I saw this Alan Paul-directed modern-day Romeo & Juliet at the Lansburgh Theater and found it, I have to say, simply adequate. The drama and the language were there, but I wasn’t buying the passion. There was no real heart in its heartbreak.
Flash-forward to 2018, move Dane Laffrey’s crimson fortress of a set to Sidney Harmon Hall, and, crucially, get two fresh actors for the leads, and what was once Just Fine has become some Truly Fine Shakespeare. Somehow (and I’m honestly not sure how) Daniel Kluger’s original score now feels sensitive and affecting, where before it seemed intrusive. A second look a Kaye Voyce’s costumes, which I barely even noticed in 2016, reveals them to be inventive and playful. For a show obsessed with potions and poisons, this one has aged very well in the bottle.
Credit begins with lead actor Sam Lilja, who lives in the moment with his skinny-jean’d young Montague. Lilja’s performance is consciously adventurous — he seeks out ways to deliver Romeo’s lines that you’ve never heard before, making 400-year-old blank verse his own. Equally adroit is Danaya Esperanza’s Juliet, packing her scenes full of soul and spitfire. The script repeatedly reminds you the character is only a girl of 14, but no one tell that to Esperanza, who gives her, wonderfully, the heart and mind of a grown woman. Together, these star-cross’d lovers are undeniably sweet.
At least one performer required no improvement from the original launch: Jeffrey Carlson’s Mercutio is a shameless scene-stealer, with velvet slippers to match his voice. I’ve never before seen a Mercutio who can get laughs with his very first line — “Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance” — nor one actually capable of taming the tortuous beast that is the Queen Mab speech. Also making welcome returns: Ron Menzel’s Father Lawrence, a humane take on an infuriating character, and Judith Lightfoot Clarke’s Lady Capulet. She gets, frankly, too much lurking to do, but she does it well.
Paul, who also serves as STC’s associate artistic director, bring an astute levelheadedness to Shakespeare’s most lovey-dovey play. It isn’t the stars or the fates that doom R&J, after all, it’s their foolish friends and advisers. The staging doesn’t browbeat Lawrence, the Nurse or Mercutio for making bad situations much worse, but it doesn’t blow right past them, either. In this production, beats matter.
This Romeo & Juliet is not as good as it used to be; it’s better. And you can’t beat the ticket price.