- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

Drawing on the current fashion for “updating” Shakespeare’s works, the Folger Theatre’s current production of “Romeo and Juliet,” which opened Sunday under the direction of PJ Paparelli, re-imagines the play as a spruced-up riff on “West Side Story.” But here, Shakespeare’s deviancy is defined down even further.

Romeo, Juliet — in fact, the entire crew of crazy kids — are just a batch of rich, immature, violence-prone, hyper-emotional teenagers with a little too much time on their hands and more hormones than brains. Under the collective thumb of powerful, morally corrupt adults, they have little direction in their own idle lives and naturally turn repressed energy into vicious mischief.

In a way, this notion is not far off the mark. Upper-class teens in Shakespeare’s hypothetical Verona would, indeed, have been busy fighting, loving, marrying, procreating and dying before they could reach the age of 20.

But Mr. Paparelli takes things too far. Like a contemporary singer who articulates supposedly deep emotions by belting them out at increasingly higher decibel levels, the director’s wearying belligerent post-1960s vision of the generational wars possesses little subtlety and less warmth. The Folger’s teens are the creatures South Park’s kids might become in a few more years if they took a crash course in fencing. And their arrogant parents are as dumb as posts.

The entire evening is drenched in vulgarity. The young gents have never met a sentence that didn’t contain a snarky sexual innuendo. They climb about the production’s jungle-gym set like monkeys, marking their territory and seeking nubile females in heat.

And the dotty old Nurse (Nancy Robinette) has the manners and mores of a minor league baseball player. Shakespeare was no prude. But the crotch-grabbing, leg-spreading tastelessness that littered this production got old after the first half-hour, frequently overcoming the seriousness of purpose that the youngish cast struggled to convey.

The most egregious offender in this regard was Michael Urie’s Mercutio, although it was more the director’s fault than his own. Scampering, mugging, and stroking every potentially phallic object in sight, his Mercutio, depending on your age, is either your best high school friend in 2005, or a total pain in the tush if you’re a parent. Graham Hamilton’s Romeo was marginally less hyper, but could’ve used an intravenous dose of Ritalin as he confronted his impending exile in Friar Lawrence’s cell.

Which, judging from his program notes, is probably Mr. Paparelli’s point. Classic drama today has become largely subordinate to directorial vision. The art of Shakespeare and others is increasingly getting buried in cheap tricks and contemporary references that the classics apparently require to make them meaningful and relevant to new generations. But such an approach ignores Shakespeare’s depth and the luminous art of his poetry.

The Folger’s “Romeo and Juliet” does not lack its own breathless energy. Younger theatergoers will howl in delight to discover just how “hip” Shakespeare really was. (Who knew?) And there is plenty of passionate acting in this mess, most notably the remarkable Edward Gero’s pensive Friar Lawrence and Nicole Lowrance’s star turn as a sweetly “tweeny” but ultimately tragic Juliet.

But this production lacks the nobility of spirit in which it was conceived. Its boisterous meanness betrays the humanity of its young heroes who seek transcendental joy in a time of chaos. It’s just another brutal, postmodernist view of a world that could really use something hopeful, inspiring and genuinely new.

**

WHAT: Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”

WHERE: Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 E. Capitol St. SE

WHEN: Tuesday through Thursday and Sundays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $30 to $48.

PHONE: 202/544-7077

WEB SITE: www.folger.edu

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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