“We are just like Romeo and Juliet/
We’re happy, young and bubbling with love/
I can’t wait to read the ending!/
I can’t either!/
But I’m sure it turns out real swell/
I bet Romeo marries his Juliet/
They have a baby/
And make lots of friends!/
That’s prob’ly the way the play ends!”
– Reefer Madness: The Musical, music: Dan Studney, lyrics: Kevin Murphy
What is it about Shakespeare’s tragic teens that continues to captivate the English-reading world? Is the way we adults read it and recall how dramatically hormonal we were at that age? Is it because perceived “simplicity” of the story makes it a better intro to the Bard than, say, Coriolanus? Is it the way we marvel at how a story of underage marriage, murder, and suicide is taught in every classroom in the country, but The Color Purple and The Bell Jar are often banned?
Whatever the case may be, Billy’s Shakes’ adaptation of the story of star-crossed lovers is no less prominent that it has been. Not only is it the SF Ballet’s penultimate show of their all-digital 2021 season, but we can also expect Steven Spielberg’s big screen remake of West Side Story to materialize some time this year.
To the former, I’ll say this about choreographer Helgi Tomasson’s take on Prokoviev’s 1938 composition (this is a 2015 production recreating the 1994 world premiere): it doesn’t skimp on sex appeal. That’s the fine line one has to walk when adapting the story – on the one hand, being a randy teen, by definition, means obsessing over the urge to “mak[e] the beast with two backs”; on the other hand, the main characters are still teenagers, who should never be sexualized by adults who (should) know better.
Tomasson appears to lean toward the idea that since the characters are often played by adults (and a ballet means that no age is mentioned), then they’ll more or less be portrayed as adults. Though that’s mainly in regard to the characters who aren’t the eponymous duo. Take the opening street scene, which precedes the Capulet-Montague scuffle with a flirty display straight out of Bizet’s Carmen. (I should know: I was in Bizet’s Carmen – on that same stage, no less). That it slides so easily into the violence (by Tomasson and Mario Pistone) is a sly commentary on the relationship between the two.
Such an interpretation could also be seen in the addition of the usually-unseen Rosaline, performed here by WanTing Zhao. Her performance has hints of vixen that contrast well with the ingenue of Juliet (Maria Kochetkova). Both are perfectly light on their feet, but one can’t help but wonder if the creators were suggesting Romeo (Davit Karapetyan) left self-assured “bad girl” Rosaline – who has a notable dance with Tybalt (Luke Ingham) during the party – for virginal “good girl” Juliet?
There’s a wonderfully campy “bigness” to the portrayal of the elder Capulets (Ricardo Bustamante & Sofiane Sylve) and Montagues (Rubén Martín Cintas &Lacey Escabar), whose inexplicable feud set this whole mishegas into motion. They may only react to the story, but those reactions are easy to see from miles away. All of which is staged against Jens-Jacob Worsaae’s wonderfully intricate scenery and costuming.
In fact, it occasionally goes a bit too big for its own good, with Mercutio’s (Pascal Molat) death and Juliet’s two deaths played to the melodramatic hilt.
As if this classic piece weren’t accessible enough, the Ballet will soon end their season with Swan Lake, arguably the quintessential “mainstream” ballet. It’s been interesting watching this archive-based return to basics for the company as its longtime AD prepares to hang up his hat next year. The legacy he leaves casts an intimidating shadow over whomever succeeds him.
But as the days come and go, it’s what you see behind that informs how far you’ve come. Classics like Romeo and Juliet are so often retold because no matter how many times a story is told, someone will be hearing it for the very first time. If this accessible piece is someone first time with the story and/or the SF Ballet, it’s not a bad place to start for either.
Romeo & Juliet is scheduled to stream until the 26th of May on the SF Ballet website.
The show runs 2 hours 8 minutes with a single intermission.
For access and information, please visit the production’s official site here.