Rahway, NJ- As a staff member at the UCPAC, I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to a preview of Romeo and Juliet on Thursday, March 2 at the Hamilton Stage. Directed and produced by Brian Remo and Jessica Foerst, under Fearless Productions, this Shakespearean classic was presented with original text but utilized an interesting setting change. Verona was replaced with 1995 New Orleans, and the Montagues and Capulets were transformed into the Bacchus and Comus Krewes.
When my eyes scanned the set on stage, I was immediately struck by its three-dimensionality. This wasn’t just a backdrop with the obligatory balcony; these were complex buildings that you could both climb on and disappear into. For example, though Friar Lawrence’s cell was not a closed room and reminded one more of a cross section, the overhang above the area gave the impression of depth and privacy. Furthermore, within this quaint “room” was a door with a beaded curtain, beyond which only blackness could be seen. Once an actor used that door, I was fully convinced that they were in a back room within the same building, and I never saw them leave the stage. Juliet’s balcony showed even more complexity. At the top of the stairs were two glass doors, which at different moments could be closed or opened to look in on Juliet’s bedroom. Juliet’s bedroom was large enough that she was able to lie down in the room with the audience only being able to see hints of her arms and legs.
The actors’ and actresses’ interaction with the set, choosing how much to show and when, controlled when the audience was supposed to be involved and when they were supposed to be onlookers. The door closing on Juliet about to sleep made us feel like intruders, whereas the Nurse opening the door to do chores made us feel welcome. And in this room as well, a door cloaked in darkness sat, reminding us of the rest of the estate beyond. Adjacent to the balcony were other raised areas atop the buildings where characters could look down at goings-on, discuss matters and contemplate decisions. And towards the end of the play, another hidden niche became apparent that I would rather not spoil. All of this made me feel like a child on a playground; I wanted to go up on stage and explore.
On to the main event: the actors and actresses did a phenomenal job. As per the setting change, their costumes were modernized to fit 1990s styles (e.g. with Romeo sporting a leather jacket and jeans). This presented the performers with the unique challenge of making Old-English seem natural coming from casually dressed, modern Americans. In addition to that, for me as a non-actor, it’s a challenge to hear a different character’s voice within speech that is so unfamiliar. There’s a danger of every character sounding the same. However, the performers’ deliveries were so varied that the performance never stagnated, and it didn’t feel as though they were all just reading from Shakespeare’s play. They were all speaking from a different viewpoint. In terms of sounding natural for the time, Ross Bergen’s approach as Romeo was to deliver his lines casually, with an almost nonchalant quality. I feel that was a great choice, as most often, spoken speech between young people today is casual, and importance is placed on the overall message rather than focusing on distinct wording and annunciation. Romeo in particular is seen sulking quite often in the play, even from the very beginning as he pines over the unseen Rosaline. With this said, Bergen distinguished moments of mild annoyance and great anguish very well, varying the volume, pitch and quality of his vocal performance. My favorite moments were his fight scenes with Tybalt and the County Paris, during which his desperation was clear and almost frightening. His yells portrayed confusion, anger and sadness all at once.
On to Brooke Sirota as Juliet: her delivery portrayed a strong-willed woman if there ever was one. It was exceedingly refreshing to see a character so resolute and unmoved by anguish, and doubly so that she was female. While the source material accounts for this attribute in Juliet as well, I felt that Sirota pushed Juliet’s strength to new heights, mirroring a more modern change from seeing women as delicate and fragile. Despite the fact that she could only see her Romeo for a few moments at a time, Sirota made Juliet’s jests and teases all the more fiery and filled with passion, rather than filled with melancholy. And when she went to pick up her weapon, she allowed sadness to sit in the back of her throat, as if it was betraying her anguish, but didn’t let it overtake the performance.
As a critique, I will say that some of Shakespeare’s witty banter, which he tends to exaggerate over one topic, couldn’t be overcome by a modern approach, and the words being used felt out of place for the scene. These moments were few and far between, however. In addition, the names “Montague” and “Capulet” were not changed, so while the change in scenery helped the audience know we weren’t in Verona, we weren’t fully cemented in New Orleans either. Rather than use swords, as per the original material, the characters used handguns, which was an interesting and somewhat shocking change. It brought the story into the modern era and made the violence take on an even more frightening and dangerous turn. However, words like “sword” and “dagger” were also not changed, so it felt like the characters were confused when they referred to their guns as such. It took a little bit away from the poignancy of those moments. But, once you get past those few seconds, the action is intense and jarring.
Overall, I would recommend everyone go see this play for themselves! There are plenty of opportunities: it’s showing March 3, 4, 10, 11, 17 and 18 at 8 PM, and March 5, 12 and 19 at 2 PM. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online at ucpac.org, over the phone by calling (732) 499-8226 or in person at the box office. A $10 student/senior price is available by phone or in person only. Box office hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 AM to 5 PM, with extended hours on Thursdays, 11 AM to 8 PM. The Union County Performing Arts Center’s Hamilton Stage is located in downtown Rahway at 360 Hamilton Street and is easily accessible to major roads and public transportation. Enjoy!!
Full Cast and Crew:
Juliet: Brooke Sirota
Romeo: Ross Bergen
Friar Lawrence: John Correll
Nurse: Mary Lutton O'Connor
Mercutio: Brandon Arias
Benvolio: Ross Pohling
Tybalt: Steve Yates
Paris: Peter Curly
Prince: Matt Gochman
Lord Capulet: Howard Smith
Lady Capulet: Judy Casey Wilson
Lord Montague: Travis Head
Lady Montague: Adriana Spizzuco
Friar John: Matt Cowan
Peter: Geoff Laforge
Directed and Produced by Brian Remo and Jessica Foerst
Stage Manager: Bree Guell
Tech Director: Josh Cote
Fight Choreo: Mike Serpe
Costumes: Kayleigh Gumbrecht
Props: Travis Head
Set Design: Brian Remo
Set Construction: Brian Remo and Tim James