I kept expecting to hear a car backfire at the Balagan Theatre’s production of “Romeo and Juliet”, as the stage was in a basement reminiscent of a garage. This is not a bad thing: I liked the intimate space and the fact that they sell beer you can drink in the theatre. It feels more like being in the Globe, and, in addition, there’s something to be said for being just a foot or two from the action; I could see that Romeo’s shoes needed to be polished. There was no set and few props; a pillar was covered by what appeared to be actors’ copies of Titus Andronicus. The explanation came when Romeo (Banton Foster) ripped another few pages and pasted them on the “sycamore” (“A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad; / Where, underneath the grove of sycamore” Benvolio says). Romeo apparently tore pages from the book to show himself a melancholy artist in the Romantic mode; as portrayed here, he is a dreamy undergrad.
A few other choices surprised me: the nurse played the fool, and Tybalt (Mark Carr) was banal. In contrast, Mercutio (Ryan Higgins) lived up to his name, provided comic relief, and his death was much mourned by this audience member. The costumes went all over the twentieth century, from Paris in a tuxedo to Mercutio in a track suit to a plain yellow dress with black leggings on Juliet (Allison Strickland) to generic hipster clothes on many others. Still, Mercutio and Juliet transcended their costumes. Juliet was the obvious leader here, leading teasing, and enticing Romeo; together the two played being teenagers well, and I could see the walls of Verona being for Romeo what the walls of high school are for others. I also hadn’t realized just how narcissistic Romeo is, with much of his speech focused on himself and even his speech superficially focused on Juliet only going through the lens of his eyes.
But the adults’ coldness and cruelty shone through as well, and they were perhaps worse than the passionate youth, who are encouraged by their elders’ grudges. I’m reminded of the old version of Planet of the Apes, which implies no one over 30 should be trusted. The poison of their beliefs works its way through Shakespeare’s language, although discussing that fully is a longer essay than I care to write here, and you’re better off hearing the play from actors than reading about it on the screen or page. You could do worse than seeing it at the Balagan.