The balcony scene in “Romeo and Juliet” is arguably one of the most famous sequences in all of literature, one that can be played competently without much fuss because Shakespeare’s poetry so artfully captures the rash passion of young love.
But as the two besotted teenagers in the Guthrie Theater’s rich, free-spirited production of the Shakespearean classic, actors Ryan-James Hatanaka and Kate Eastman take the words a lot further. The pair virtually perform an erotic dance with words, swirling as they couple up and spin out with blushing glee. The tight spaces between their utterances spark with charged, lusty desires.
The actors, who have palpable chemistry, bring throbbing life to words and roles in director Joseph Haj’s gorgeous and stirring production, which opened over the weekend at the Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis. True, Eastman and Hatanaka are a touch mature for parts meant to be early teenagers. But their performances as hopped-up lovers are ones to savor as they power their star-crossed love story to its tragic finale.
As he settles into his leadership chair at the Guthrie, Haj is giving Minnesotans a clearer sense of his approach to Shakespeare. His developing aesthetic, based so far only on three Shakespearean titles, includes wit, imaginative casting, a sharpening of the earthy elements and a fidelity to transmitting the Bard’s poetry with clarity.
Haj’s first Shakespeare at the Guthrie, “Pericles,” was basically an import. It had clean line readings in dramatic, epic settings. “King Lear,” his second Shakespeare, was a majestic elaboration of his approach, marked with bloody scenes and a recognition of the talent and resources available to him in Minnesota.
Haj’s ambition, wit and sense of play hit a new mark in “Romeo and Juliet,” which plays out on a handsome set designed by Anna Louizos. All the settings, from the courtyard to Juliet’s bedroom, pivot on a turntable, giving the production a cinematic, world-turning feel.
Haj has refreshed the show, which is in hodgepodge modern and period dress. (Jennifer Moeller designed the costumes.) This “Romeo and Juliet” is studded with contemporary stage business, from dances (the whip/nae nae) to beatboxing (hello, “Hamilton”?) to interstitial music that ranges from polka to hip-hop (courtesy of composer Victor Zupanc).
The director’s sense of freedom extends to the casting, which is no slave to literalism. Mercutio is played with randy luster by Kelsey Didion, well-cast as Romeo’s bosom buddy. Dreadlocked actor Lamar Jefferson gives Romeo’s cousin Benvolio contemporary moves and verve.
Haj also has cast Shá Cage as elegant and stately Lady Capulet, James A. Williams as good-hearted but regretful Friar Laurence, Bill McCallum as the commanding Prince and Candace Barrett Birk as the nattering and charming Nurse. Tybalt is played like a tattooed Eastern European enforcer by Stan Demidoff.
But for all the modern elements, which add to the show’s contemporary resonance, “Romeo and Juliet” retains its essence. The text has been judiciously trimmed but is otherwise largely unchanged. In fact, you could argue that beneath the updates, the approach remains a conservative one as Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is delivered, at times, with too much of a trotting rhythm that stresses the rhymes. Still, the whole thing unfolds with humor, lust and heartbreaking pathos.
612-673-4390 Twitter: @rohanpreston