Directed by Hansol Jung and Dustin Wills, this sportive, vividly acted production fails to make a convincing case for its new gags and directorial flights.
“Romeo and Juliet” is at its core a cautionary tale of young love: Kiss a boy at a party one day, marry him the next, inside of a week you’re both dead. Of Shakespeare’s tragedies it is more propulsive than most, funnier and more modern, too, an amalgam of sex and death and a masquerade ball that requires little improvement. Cast a couple of charismatic leads, wind them up and let the bodies fall.
That doesn’t mean that playwrights and directors shouldn’t interrogate or adapt the text. Of course they should. But what’s puzzling about the “Romeo and Juliet” presented by the National Asian American Theater Company in partnership with Two River Theater is how little any of that adaptation adds.
Directed by Hansol Jung and Dustin Wills, who recently collaborated on “Wolf Play” at Soho Rep, and with what’s billed as a “modern verse translation” by Jung, this is a sportive, vividly acted production that fails to make a convincing case for its many directorial flights and vernacular interventions. Jung and Wills have thrown much spaghetti at the “Romeo and Juliet” wall. The result is a lot of noodling around.
At 136 East 13th Street, usually the home of the Classic Stage Company, the set, designed by Junghyun Georgia Lee and lit by Joey Moro, is a wooden circle. This gestures toward the Elizabethan, as do Mariko Ohigashi’s costumes, which combine long skirts and slashed doublets with T-shirts and jeans.
Jung’s script walks this same line between early modern and contemporary, leaving some tranches of the play intact, but zhuzhing up other parts with new vocabulary and new jokes. In the first scene, for example, the prologue is delivered more or less intact, minus a “doth” here and there. Yet the first line of dialogue is “I swear, man, we can’t be no one’s suckers,” which leads into some very filthy puns. (Are they bad puns? Yes. But so are Shakespeare’s.)
Jung’s interpolations are perhaps an improvement on the real first lines — an elaborate play on “collier” and “choler” — though specificity of acting and direction would have put the language across. And some of the substitutions, like “thrilled” for “proud,” are even less necessary. Still, Jung is savvy enough to respect Shakespeare’s rhythms and to match his word play, so there’s pleasure in seeing her lively mind volley with his.
The acting, from Major Curda’s sad boy Romeo to Dorcas Leung’s sweetheart Juliet to Mia Katigbak’s warm, blunt Nurse, is uniformly strong. (Daniel Liu, playing a servant and Lady Capulet, is an actor to keep an eye on.) As actors of Asian descent don’t always get equal opportunities to play classical roles, this alone justifies the production. Jung and Wills’s direction doesn’t always serve them, though. It’s broad and busy, inclined toward clowning and with a habit of brazening out every sex joke. There are Brechtian gestures and live looping and Groucho Marx glasses and plastic fish littering the stage, which rob the story of momentum. Tybalt (Rob Kellogg), at one point, does the worm. Tragedy recedes.
Yet if you are or can remember being young and possessed of big, ungovernable feelings, “Romeo and Juliet” won’t seem far away to you. Making the language and the dancing and the streetwear mirror our own time hasn’t brought it any closer.
Romeo and Juliet
Through June 3 at the Lynn F. Angelson Theater, Manhattan; naatco.org. Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes.