Updated stagings of "Romeo and Juliet" are neither new nor necessarily revelatory, but an imaginative one can make you see and feel the tragedy in a fresh, stronger light, can sweep you up into that fateful vortex where young love collides with stubborn pride and absurd grudges.
Folger Theatre's season-opening production succeeds awfully well at doing just that.
Directed with a vibrant touch by Aaron Posner, the play gets an essentially American treatment in terms of accent and attitude (if actors inserted a "like" or "you know" into every sentence, it wouldn't seem all that out of place).
Some of the exquisite poetry in Shakespeare's language doesn't fully register, but the natural, unselfconscious delivery by the engaging, tightly knit cast proves persuasive. Same for the eclectic visual treatment.
Folger's perfect recreation of an Elizabethan theater is effectively used by scenic designer Meghan Raham, whose unfussy set, subtly lit by Jennifer Schriever, includes a few small, scene-setting projections and one very neatly placed moon. Christopher Baine's moody sound design enhances the staging considerably.
There are some distinctive costumes to go with this atmosphere, though nothing so blatant as, say, the carefully torn jeans sported by motorcycle-straddling Orlando Bloom in the current Broadway production of "Romeo and Juliet."
Here, the designs by Laree Lentz neatly combine a touch of the Renaissance with the punk/grunge look that's back in fashion this season (Juliet nonchalantly sports work boots with a dress).
The text has been cut a fair amount. The trims don't make the performance as short as "the two hours' traffic of our stage" referred to in the play's opening lines, but it feels nearly that fast. Posner maintains propulsion and tension, sometimes playing scenes simultaneously, and makes great use of two-level set throughout.
To heighten the doomed romance at the heart of the story, Posner surrounds the lovers with reminders of what a cold, cruel world it really is out there.
The mindless violence between the Montagues and the Capulets is bad enough. What goes on inside the Capulet household is every bit as horrid. The hardy-drinking Lord Capulet (Brian Dykstra, in a compelling, volatile performance) is brutually abusive to wife, daughter, nephew and servant alike. It's easy to understand why Juliet would grab the chance to escape this tense environment.
Erin Weaver, who was the deliciously sparky star of Signature Theatre's "Xanadu" revival in 2012, gives a winning portrayal of the heroine. Weaver never lets you forget that Juliet is a kid, barely into her teens.
The Teddy bear she clutches at the start of the balcony scene; her bellowing of "Anon" when being called by the Nurse; the way she puts such a disdainful spin on the words "old folks" -- all of this helps to make Weaver's Juliet disarmingly real.
When she first appears, this initially bespectacled, awkward Juliet seems like many an unhappy child, withdrawn into herself. When, during the Capulets' ball, it turns out that some guys really do make passes at girls who wears glasses, Weaver lets you feel the shock of Romeo's first glance.
And no wonder. Michael Goldsmith exudes an electric current in the role of the hapless Montague. The actor brings out Romeo's impulsive streak with abundant flair, verbal and physical, while also letting the heartsick side emerge with a touching naivete.
There's no point in a "Romeo and Juliet" without chemistry between the two leads. That chemistry is downright combustible here, which makes the tomb scene all the more affecting.
The cast also boasts a terrific Mercutio in Brad Koed, who delivers the Queen Mab speech with colorful nuance and dishes out bawdy banter in breezy fashion. Sherri L. Edelen makes a splendid Nurse, relishing every syllable of the text. She gets good mileage out of each comic possibility, but also reveals the vast heart of the simple woman.
Shannon Koob is a sympathetic Lady Capulet, Eric Hissom an effective Friar Lawrence (this cleric finds a "powerful grace" in herbs that many a contemporary stoner would recognize). The rest of the ensemble does solid work.
In the final portion of the play, as accident and coincidence put the finishing touch on Romeo and Juliet's "death-mark'd love," ghosts gather to watch from the floor above, starting with Mercutio and Tybalt and eventually including Romeo's mother (an inspired touch in this production -- the lines referring to that death are omitted, but we get the impact anyway).
As each new victim of the tragedy is claimed, the ghosts let out a deep, weary breath. The sound of that deathly exhaling is just one more way this "Romeo and Juliet" has been vividly brought to life.