One of the greatest challenges for any theater director is to put his or her personal stamp on a play as well known as Romeo and Juliet. California Shakespeare Theater director Jonathan Moscone emphasized the turf-war aspect of the play, setting it in a modern, urban landscape. In contrast, Impact Theatre director Melissa Hillman decided to milk the teen romance. Her current production is as sordid and violent as any — it opens with a torture scene, after all — but it's also intentionally cheesy. Rather than shy away from the over-wroughtness of Shakespeare's balcony scene, Hillman chose to amplify it. She portrays Romeo and Juliet as rash, hormonal juveniles, rather than young idealists who seem wise beyond their years. As a result, her Romeo and Juliet — like her Midsummer Night's Dream of 2009 — is cute, peppy, and even a little sarcastic. It doesn't feel like a tragedy until the penultimate scene.
That's mostly a result of casting, since Hillman chose an extremely youthful Romeo and Juliet. Michael Garrett McDonald, who plays the male lead, was last seen as the bully in another Impact teen drama, MilkMilkLemonade. He makes such an unknowing Romeo that you might nod your head as Benvolio (the fabulously funny Seth Thygesen) chides him in the first scene: "Hey, Romeo, remember when you had a dick?" Luisa Frasconi is an acquired taste as Juliet. Small, dimpled, and fair-skinned, she could be just about any age you want her to be. In this case, she's about thirteen. A hysterical thirteen. The kind of thirteen-year-old who would be most at home screaming in the front row of a Justin Bieber concert, or whatever the 16th-century equivalent was.
So it's hard not to feel like a creepy old voyeur watching the two of them fall in love. The famous balcony scene isn't so much a union of star-crossed lovers as a hot, after-the-dance flirtation. Juliet is looking sweet and photogenic in her jammies. Romeo follows her home, climbs up to her bedroom window, and claims not to be a stalker. ("With love's light wings did I o'erperch these walls."). Both actors scuttle through vast swaths of script, either because they don't trust the audience to comprehend them, or because they have to make it through one shotgun wedding and five deaths in a mere two hours. Either way, it feels a little like bushwhacking. Frasconi elicited laughs by telling her Romeo not to "swear by the inconstant moon." In the script, she's asking him for a better sense of security. Like, put a ring on it, Romeo. In this iteration, it comes off as a scold.
Hillman's choice of obscure Russian hip-hop for the soundtrack seems at odds with the puerile love story she's engineered. It's apparently a signifier for the Russian mafia underworld, which is her substitute for fair Verona. That's hard to get unless you read the program notes. But it's a great idea. The combination of well-dressed, pony-tailed gangsters and oppressive dance music creates the kind of environment where family feuds should last for centuries, and romance seems the obvious form of teen rebellion. It also allows Mike Delaney to employ his best Russian accent, as the servant boy for Bernadette Quattrone's nurse.
Even with those symbols, the first half of the play isn't so much a Shakespearian romance as it is a romantic comedy. You have your snarly teen girl and goofy, overcompensating teen boy, who fall for each other against their parent's wishes. And beyond them lies a whole repertory of stock characters: the saucy, foul-mouthed, well-meaning nanny; the equally saucy, quasi-abusive dad (Jon Nagel); the protective older cousin Tybalt (Reggie D. White); and evil, preening suitor (Alexander Prather, playing a relatively benign Paris). Like every guy in every romantic comedy that ever existed, Romeo has a Greek chorus of friends who eagerly dispense bad advice. In this case, they're played by Thygesen, Marilet Martinez (who steals the show as drunken Mercutio), and Miyuki Bierlein (who has only a few lines as Balthasar, but also designed the actors' costumes). The dick jokes bristle in every scene.
It isn't until the second half that tragedy really starts brewing. The sex jokes abate. There's still a humorous current throughout, particularly when Friar Laurence (Jordan Winer) enters with a gold-chain cross slung around his neck, which makes him look like an off-duty preacher. But overall, the mood gets more somber. The stones in Anne Kendall's set design seem colder and, well, stonier. By the time Juliet decides to feign death — having endured a beating and forced betrothal from her father — all the giddiness of first love is over. She's transformed from the heroine of a teen comedy to the sacrificial victim of a melodrama. It's clear that no stylistic flourish could save Romeo and Juliet from their fate. But there is a great one at the end. Sort of a post-mortem. Or a personal stamp.
Correction: We misspelled Anne Kendall's name in the original version of this review.