Shakespeare's Star-Crossed Lovers Re-Energized

Guild Hall’s production will be something of a wryly subversive, counterculture retelling
The cast of “Romeo and Juliet” is a mix of East End and New York City theater talent. Durell Godfrey

Those crazy kids Romeo and Juliet are coming to Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater. “It’s wildly relevant today . . . because of where we’re at as a culture. . . . Love versus hate. . . ,” Josh Gladstone, the theater’s artistic director and director of the production, ruminated during a recent rehearsal. The world’s most famous romance opens in East Hampton on March 14. 

Shakespeare’s archetypal story of forbidden young passion crushed by customs, punitive rules, and clannish hostilities was written in 1599 under the title, “The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.” Centuries on, and innumerable interpretations later, “Romeo and Juliet” still has the power to break hearts.

Judging by rehearsals at the John Drew Theater over the last two weeks, it appears that Guild Hall’s production will be something of a wryly subversive, counterculture retelling. 

“It’s a punk love story,” Kate Mueth, the show’s choreography director, explained. Ms. Mueth will also be onstage offering some gabbling and bawdy comedy as the Nurse. 

“Josh and I listened to a lot of music together,” she said of her husband, Mr. Gladstone. “We were both attracted to the same stuff and music led the way for us.” (A middle-aged Romeo and Juliet?)

An Arctic Monkeys soundtrack played as some of the cast practiced a bit of sexy dance-theater. The show will feature original music by David M. Brandenburg, a sound designer, with tracks being sampled by the Arctic Monkeys, Gabi, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Romeo gets around on a skateboard and Juliet has a Razor Scooter — I guess we’re not on the cobblestoned streets of Verona. Tybalt, the hothead, looks like he owns a brewery in Williamsburg, and the Prince of Verona, played by Carlos Lama, rolls on and offstage in his wheelchair. Surely, Fellini is due any moment to film it.

There’s always a fine line between vandalizing Shakespeare and finding a fresh approach for a classic. Thankfully, in this production, respect for the language prevails over visual insouciance. This is a vibrantly modern spin, with ample humor, video projections, and other cute flourishes, but it remains faithful to the original language, those glorious, touching passages, so moving in their simplicity. 

Romeo, Alexander Might of Brooklyn, appears well suited for the progression from self-absorbed moper to someone genuinely inflamed by love. And who wouldn’t be at the sight of this Juliet from Manhattan. Tossing her glorious red mane, Olivia De Salvo is all innocent beauty. However, the 21-year-old cannot rely on her looks alone because ultimately it is Juliet’s noble spirit that ensnares Romeo, and the audience.

But it is Charlie Westfal in the role of Mercutio who deserves a special shout- out. With his obnoxious frat boy energy, Mr. Westfal dominated rehearsal scenes, bouncing around on rubbery limbs and shooting naughty puns at anyone who crossed the stage.

Not all actors have been imported. Minerva Perez, the executive director of Organizacion Latino-Americana, is Lady Capulet. Mr. Gladstone will be onstage, too, as the patriarch of the opposing house of Montague. There are also 10 local high schoolers involved, seven onstage and three assisting the production team. 

During one of the rehearsals, Frankie Bademci, an 11th grader at East Hampton, who plays Peter, the Nurse’s personal servant, spent his downtime writing a message of love on a colorful Post-It note, then stuck it on a wall full of love notes at the John Drew Theater. Raye Levine, the show’s set designer, conceived the idea of creating a wall of love after being inspired by the sticky notes that New Yorkers posted in the subway following the 2016 presidential election. The hope at Guild Hall is to have the wall filled by opening night.

“Anyone can stop by and add their own stickies,” explained Frankie, as he placed his message next to ones that read, “I Love Josh,” and “I’ve been waiting for a girl like you.” Everyone has been encouraged to visit Guild Hall during its regular gallery and box office hours to add their own love note on the wall. 

For Mr. Gladstone, directing “Romeo and Juliet” marks coming full circle, as it was with this play that he made his directorial debut at Guild Hall in 2001. “That one was set in the 13th century and in period costumes,” he explained. “This one is definitely the most evolved production for me. And the most exciting.”

Whether his modern-day “Romeo and Juliet” will deliver real pathos shall be seen anon. But judging by the rehearsals alone, it certainly promises to capture the thrill and excitement of being young and in love.

Olivia De SalvoDurell Godfrey
Skateboards, wheelchairs, and scooters have a prominent role in "Romeo and Juliet," soon to open at Guild Hall.Durell Godfrey