On Stage: Be Still My Teenaged Heart

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Folger Theatre’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ captures complexity of young love.


Folger Theatre’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Photo by Jeff Malet)

There seem to be few things as emotionally unstable as teenage love. It is such a tempestuous, irrational period that it isn’t surprising that Shakespeare was drawn to it in writing “Romeo and Juliet,” a tragedy of emotion over reason. Too often, the young lovers in the familiar play are portrayed by actors who are too far advanced in years to be credible. It often makes it hard to suspend belief and understand how someone so mature looking could be such a troubled adolescent.

In casting Adam Goldsmith as Romeo and Erin Weaver as Juliet, Aaron Posner, the director of “Romeo and Juliet” at the Folger Theatre, has effectively dealt with that problem. Goldsmith and Weaver may not be teenagers, but they are convincing as goofy youth in the thrall of first love. Directors often seem to overlook that Shakespeare’s Juliet is only 13 years old. Admittedly that was the age when young girls were married off.

When we first see Juliet, she is wearing glasses and has her nose dreamily buried in a book. Romeo is a moody teenager who is clearly in love with being in love and is fantasizing about a girl, but soon forgets that girl as he falls head-over-heels for Juliet when he sees her. There is one nice touch in the well-known balcony scene when Juliet comes forward carrying a stuffed animal that she indifferently tosses away with the realization that she is relinquishing the toy for the new emotion of love.

One fun moment that emphasizes Juliet’s immaturity is her reaction after an argument with her mother over accepting the marriage her father has arranged. As her mother, Lady Capulet, leaves the room, Juliet gives her the finger. That’s probably the first time any Juliet has done that in a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” but it does put the teenage angst into perspective. It may not have been the way Shakespeare wrote it, but it emphasizes the often irrational frustration of youth over parental authority.

Juliet and Romeo are annoying teenagers and not sympathetic, even though theirs is an impossible love further complicated by the fact that they come from two feuding Verona families — the Capulets and Montagues — who have hated each other for decades. That, of course, makes the forbidden love more passionate and delicious.

Young love never runs smoothly and this one, with Romeo, a Montague, and Juliet, a Capulet, doesn’t have a chance of succeeding. The painful end is inevitable and that is where Posner has succeeded in this production. His focus is on the tragedy of impossible young love, de-emphasizing the often sappy romantic idea that so often overwhelms other productions.

There is no one sympathetic in “Romeo and Juliet,” except for Lady Capulet, performed with painful sensitivity by Shannon Koob. Even the comic relief of the Nurse, the usually impressive Sherri Edelen, seems forced and unnecessarily overwrought.

Meghan Raham’s scenic design was minimal and virtually nonexistent. At times if felt the actors were part of a reading and the production did not suffer from the severe set. It was also difficult to comprehend Laree Lentz‘s costume design that looked like a blending of the traditional with a grungy contemporary look.

The intimate Folger Theatre remains one of Washington’s oft-overlooked treasures. It is an appropriate venue for Shakespeare, especially for “Romeo and Juliet,” a play that is best served by an intimate setting.

William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” continues through Dec. 1 at Folger Theatre at Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE, $40-$72, available at 202-544-7077 and online.

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