The Opposite of People Delivers Imaginative Adaptation of ‘Romeo Juliet’ (4 Stars)

Romeo Juliet – Presented by The Opposite of People at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, MA (closed)

Romeo Juliet is the saga between feuding families depicting murder and revenge, but we all know it as the ultimate story of star-crossed lovers. The feminist inside of me gawks at the ‘I would give up my life for a man’ storyline, but the romantic in me swoons over being loved with such devotion.  And for this masterpiece of Shakespeare, love wins.

I’ve studied “Romeo and Juliet”  in school, memorized hundreds of lines, seen it performed as a ballet and on ice skates, both forms having no words, and watched it many times as the play. I recognize the tale in books and movies by other names, like the Twilight Saga and West Side Story. Two families are feuding. The wealthier one has a young daughter who is already betrothed. The working class family has a son who is a dreamer, a romantic, and about to fall in love with the “forbidden fruit.”  After a chance meeting, Juliet utters the famous line, “My only love sprung from my only hate! Too early seen unknown, and known too late!”  So what does The Opposite of People (TOP), a new theater company in the Greater Boston area, have to offer that makes it worth going out to see a show several towns away?  Plenty. A quick review of the program reveals female names next to traditional male roles. My appetite was whet.
 I respect the way Shakespeare has spanned centuries and look forward to how the seemingly out of place English dialect will be translated into a new dimension – a setting created by the director. As I waited for the house lights to dim in the black box theater, I absorbed how TOP might make a 450 year-old play into something different, exciting, and relevant to contemporary viewers. “Romeo Juliet” is set in a dystopian land where signs posted on the back wall read, “quarantine,” “Be a good citizen,” and “infection.”  A dozen hanging light bulbs waited to glow over the forty or so wooden palettes set up in two distinct “scene” areas.  It was a simple setting evoking dire circumstances. By clearly representing a ravaged society, a world that could actually end tomorrow, the stage was set to tell a tale where falling in love at all is a marvel in itself.

While many of the young performers are excellent in their roles, Kristie Norris as Mercutio is brilliant. I was first taken by her when she opened with the Queen Mab soliloquy and then stayed with her throughout Mercutio’s mocking jests and wisecracks. A Shakespearean actor’s challenge, besides reciting fifteenth century Shakespearian English, is to create something original in an already defined space. When words are given, characters are developed through voice changes, eye movements, gestures, and physical location on stage. Norris does it all.  At one point, she is espousing lines and crawling over Paul DeCamp (Benvolio) until she ends up across his lap kissing him.  It works so well that one wonders why this character was not female to begin with, and then remembers that in Shakespeare’s time, all roles were played by men.  Even writing a female character into a play was probably done with reluctance, when a love interest or mother was required, but not as a best friend.

Four other actors stood out (after all, Mercutio is dead half way through the play). I found myself waiting for their scenes to arrive, so that I could witness their talent again. Katie Higgins (Nurse), Stephen Sacchetti (Romeo), Shira Cahn-Lipman (Friar Laurence), and Sophie Kaner (Prince) captivated me from the moment they took their places on stage. We know the nurse is comic relief, however, and Higgins is funny because of the way she incorporates modern ticks into her persona. For example, after talking with Romeo about wedding plans, she arrives in Juliet’s room complaining of the energy it took to make the trek to town and needing to catch her breath, all while lighting a cigarette. At another point, she “flips the bird” when leaving a scene.

 Cahn-Lipman’s Friar is a cropped black haired, tattoo-clad Goth with a heart of gold, who offers counsel, hugs, and a shoulder to cry upon.  She is also very humorous and made me want to see how she would help our romantic leads.  Sacchetti’s Romeo makes an “I would die for you” five-day romance believable. Cara Guappone plays Juliet as an impetuous, whiney child who is, at times, annoying in her infatuation with Romeo, but it is Sacchetti’s acting, his gentle touch upon her arm and needy, grabby kisses, that make their love believable. At one point, in Friar’s cell, Sacchetti looks like he has been crying, epitomizing his ability to control facial gestures. He exhibits very fine acting talent.
Kaner is regal and handsome, as a prince should be. Not wearing a crown or cloak, her fitted full length, duster-styled vest over black leggings and boots, with fancy hair and stylized make up show her station.  She makes an entrance only a few times, but utters lines that summarize the feud and remind the people of what is important, often stating the obvious.  I patiently waited to hear her famous closing lines, “Capulet! Montague! See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate. That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.”
As the play unfolded, I checked off my mental list of Romeo and Juliet questions. What will they wear and how will I differentiate Capulet from Montague?  Even though futuristic facial make up is the telltale sign of the era, Capulets wear black and leather and Montagues wear brown and boots.  Zair Silva (Capulet) with Michelle Principi (Lady Capulet) are striking as parents of Juliet and Justin Villalta (Montague), father of Romeo, channels Morpheus from The Matrix.  How will the Capulet “feast” look?  Eye masks lead the way, but not enough to hide the identities of the Montague gate-crashers. Taylor Faulstich plays the spitting angry Tybalt who discovers Romeo ogling where he shouldn’t. Where will the balcony be staged?  The highest set of pallets next to the spiral staircase, of course. What weapons will be used in the fight and death scenes?  Daggers and switchblades make their appearance. Jake Waxman choreographed the many complicated fight scenes in a realistic and dramatic way, with (fake) blood and everything!  And for this performance, will the surprising female casting of apothecary, Mercutio, and Prince have these women playing a traditional male or the newly created female? The women played female characters, noted by the change of pronouns from “he’ to ‘she” in the recitation. 
 Finally, Franco Zeffirelli, who directed the 1968 movie, chose to exclude two scenes, Romeo’s stop at the apothecary and the death of Paris, so I often wonder if a production will follow suit.  It didn’t.  However, it did leave out some lines at the end in the crypt when Romeo is about to drink the poison and Juliet’s color is already returning to her face.  Unbeknownst to him, she is waking up as he is dying, or is he?  Director, Stephen Sacchetti (who performs double duty as he also plays Romeo) casts an air of ambiguity that is fitting in a post apocalyptic future. Can there be a different ending to this classic story?
The night I saw “Romeo Juliet” at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, it was sold out.  The theater added more seats to their first come first served, general admission show. The audience had both younger and older folks, but primarily twenty-somethings and was as racially and ethnically diverse as the cast (definitely a plus in my book).  TOP is affordable, edgy theater close to Boston with ample parking. The ‘Romeo Juliet’ program states that it is okay to laugh in the first act, but make no mistake; this is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. For more info go to: