“Romeo and Juliet” challenges audience expectations at Two River Theater

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Major Curda and Dorcas Leung kissing
Major Curda and Dorcas Leung in Two River Theater's Romeo and Juliet

Gain new perspectives on the themes of this classic drama

Brian Lee Huynh and Rob Kellogg on stage
Brian Lee Huynh and Rob Kellogg in Two River Theater’s Romeo and Juliet

Two River Theater in Red Bank has never shied away from its commitment to present work by artists representing all backgrounds, abilities, ages, sexual orientations, and genders. They reaffirm that commitment by presenting a new verse translation of Shakespeare’s classic drama of star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, by Hansol Jung, presented in partnership with the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO).

The result is a work that is sometimes baffling, sometimes raucously comedic, sometimes heart-breakingly beautiful, but always intriguing. It challenges audiences’ notions of how Romeo and Juliet should be played and helps liberate their minds into new perspectives on the themes of this classic drama.

As directed by playwright Jung and Dustin Wills, the nine actors in the ensemble are ingeniously double- and triple-cast. For example, Brian Lee Huynh is Lord Capulet, Juliet’s father, but also, in an early scene Lord Montague, Romeo’s father — a visual metaphor for the similarities between the heads of the two feuding families despite their sworn enmity. Mia Katigbak, actor-manager and co-founder of NAATCO, is both Juliet’s Nurse and the Prince of Verona — one regal, one simple, yet both blindly unaware of the consequences of their solutions to complex problems. Rob Kellogg, as both Tybalt, Juliet’s hot-headed cousin, and Paris, Juliet’s foppish would-be suitor, foolishly allow tribal loyalties to blind them to the truth, leading to their unnecessary deaths. Daniel Lu does a splashy turn as the Capulet’s simple-minded servant Peter and the vengeful, murder-minded Lady Capulet (and, briefly, Lady Montague as well). And Purva Bedi brings to life two smaller characters, Friar Lawrence and the Apothecary, both crucial to the play’s events.

This is not to say that there are not fine performances from those actors in single roles. Major Curda as Romeo goes through several types of love — unrequited, surface-based, and cliched romantic — before being overwhelmed by the force of true love in the person of Dorcas Leung’s Juliet.  For her part, Leung portrays the silliness of youth — much is made of Juliet being only 13 years old yet considered marriage-eligible by the standards of old Verona. Her breakneck delivery of some of Juliet’s lines, both as monologues and dialogues with Romeo, shows a child’s reactions to upsetting realities as the force of her love for Romeo overtakes her.

The cast of Romeo and Juliet on stage
The company of ROMEO AND JULIET at Two River Theater

Zion Jang, as Romeo’s friend Benvolio, attempts to cool the passions of members of both feuding families with wavering degrees of success. But one’s eye is caught by Jose Gamo’s performance as Mercutio. Hedonistic, ever skirting the edge of instigation, Gamo’s Mercutio may come across as sexually fluid or gender fluid, but in his intemperate recklessness, he is lighter fluid, ready to fuel the flames of conflict with no regard for consequences.

I cannot say that this is a perfect production of Romeo and Juliet. Co-directors Jung and Wills have made some brilliant choices in this production, but not consistently enough. Some choices, such as the use of Prince’s song “Purple Rain” toward the end, seem out of step, especially when composer Brian Quijada had created a lively original score combining adolescent romantic drivel with rap and hip-hop, even adding a nod to the Cat’s theme from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

The show is staged in the round, with some audience members seated on the stage. Scenic Designer, Junghyun Georgia Lee creates a phantasmagorical performance area utilizing a large white muslin curtain and spaces on the stage proper, above and below a circular area jutting into the orchestra, and on the floor around the circular area, to create scenes in and around Verona.

Those who might opt out of seeing another production of Romeo and Juliet rob themselves of the chance to gain new perspectives on the themes of this classic drama as told by playwright Jung and the Asian-American cast. This is not a Shakespearean play that has been “Asian-ized.” To see what it truly is, one must make the trip to Red Bank’s Two River Theater to experience Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet is presented by Two River Theater in their Rechnitz Theater in Red Bank through April 30.  For more information or to purchase tickets, call 732-345-1400 or go to tworivertheater.org.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.