It’s a daunting if not futile undertaking to attempt to freshen William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, so universally familiar is its premise and much of its quotable verse. It’s also the one work of The Bard of Avon’s that perhaps even Shakespeare-phobes have seen at least once. (Or else they’ve seen the definitive 20th-century reinterpretation that is West Side Story.) The Old Globe Theatre’s annual collaboration with the University of San Diego Shiley Graduate Theatre Program this year is Romeo and Juliet, and while this production doesn’t exactly freshen the tragedy about two mixed-up teenagers from Verona, it does instill it with both the impetuosity and runaway hormones of timeless adolescence.
To begin with, the production that runs through Nov. 19 has as its director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, who earlier this year made her Old Globe directorial debut in this very Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre with the stirring drama Skeleton Crew. In addition to giving Romeo and Juliet’s young actors the latitude to set free their emotions and immerse themselves in the story, Turner Sonnenberg’s contemporary sensibility for the much-produced play is reflected in this production’s choice of music (which includes the Jackson 5), its tenor (rapier-witty until it turns requisitely tragic) and a pace as swift as the lengthy play will allow.
Jose Martinez is a strident Romeo and Larica Schnell a highly strung Juliet, with each lover portrayed as a captive of first, passionate love and feeling absolutely entitled to it. That entitlement does not make their well-known untimely suicides any less grievous. Samantha Sutliff as Juliet’s brassy nurse and Eric Wellman as Romeo’s hotheaded crony Mercutio milk every moment they have on the little Shiley stage, while Renardo Charles Pringle Jr. balances sputtering and gravitas as poor Friar Lawrence, who tries in vain to facilitate Romeo and Juliet’s happiness.
Bottom line, if this Romeo and Juliet gets college students, or even younger audience members, into the theater this fall then its jillioneth return to the stage will have been well worth it. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/15/17.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.