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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

A modern variation of a classic love story

Published: October 30, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.

Above:  Jordie Goodman ‘12 engages in an on-stage battle during Act III.<br /><i>PHOTOS BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

Above: Jordie Goodman ‘12 engages in an on-stage battle during Act III.
PHOTOS BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Some stories are good, and some good stories are classics. But only a handful of classics are truly timeless.

Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is the ‘classic’ example. Despite having over-analyzed it to exhaustion in our English Lit courses and having seen numerous modern-day conversions of it for television, stage, and film, this tragic tale of two young lovers held together by passion and torn apart by a clash between families is universally beautiful in any medium. It has stood the test of time. It is a juicy love story, ridden with (emo)tional young romance, fist fights, and suicide, and has all the elements of a blockbuster teen movie with a bit of retro jargon thrown in. It is sheer proof that along with classic literature, teen angst is relevant to any day and age.

Elana Friedland, director of Hold Thy Peace (HTP)’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” seems to agree. That’s why her take on 16th century Europe is one giant anachronism, incorporating everything from cell phones to police sirens to sneakers on an unconventionally modern Shakespearean stage. After looking over the play this past summer, Friedland felt that the plotline was all-too-familiar, even by 21st century standards. Familiar for a teen drama, that is—like something out of a “Gossip Girl” novel. To quote the Director’s Note: “I was able to find a lot of similarities between this play and current popular media in which the lives of the powerful and wealthy are put on display for the consumption of ordinary folk.”

The opening scene of Friedland’s version of the play had me taken aback by the choice of wardrobe. I was expecting medieval robes and flowy gowns; instead I was met by tee shirts and sneakers. Yet the dialogue was in the same Old English I was expecting, and the script had been, to my knowledge, virtually untouched. The disjunction here was obviously intended, and only after a few scenes of being genuinely perplexed did I get the chance to speak with Friedland and understand why.

The costume design wasn’t the only unorthodox element of this rendition. Friedland made use of gender-neutral casting, which was a bit of a surprise, but only added to the effect she was trying to create: that regardless of whatever variant factors are involved, love is always unconditionally defiant. (And for the record, Frances Kimpel and Liza Baessler made a very convincing Tybalt and Mercutio, gender notwithstanding).

The play as a whole was well-staged and acted, but I am not sure the stage and costume design necessarily added much to it. The message rang through loud and clear, but the stark contrast between setting and dialogue seemed to me as a bit of a distraction. Unlike other modern adaptations of “Romeo and Juliet” that revamp the script into some contemporary counterparts, this seemed like a slightly awkward juxtaposition. Granted, Friedland was not aiming for “West Side Story” in her depiction and she had every right not to do so—I just find any notion of high-fiving and/or converse sneakers in the Middle Ages to be slightly unsettling. But the fact that this rendition was just as powerful and heart- wrenching as the original goes to show that a true classic is not only timeless, but boundless as well.