OSF photo by Jenny GrahamRomeo (William Thomas Hodgson) and Juliet (Emily Ota) fall in love at first sight.

OSF's 'Romeo and Juliet' themes alarmingly relevant today, director says

“A community that failed its children” is this season’s artistic concept for “Romeo and Juliet,” which opens the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s outdoor season on June 15 in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre.

Finding strength in the title characters’ voices, Director Dámaso Rodríguez says he’s drawn parallels between modern-day youth decrying adults’ attitudes and inaction. Citing teen activism following recent school shootings, Rodríguez says the young lovers’ goal — to end the fighting — often is overshadowed by its tragic conclusion.

“It so easily could have been avoided,” says Rodríguez. “Maybe we get sort of lost in the surface romance.”

Other plays opening in the Elizabethan are “The Book of Will,” by Lauren Gunderson, on June 16; and Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labor’s Lost” on June 17.

Akin to a first date for many in the audience, “Romeo and Juliet” often is playgoers’ first Shakespeare experience, says Rodríguez, who staged a contemporary interpretation of the play in 2016. Because OSF wanted a more classic production in 2018 for its outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre, Rodríguez clearly situates “Romeo and Juliet” in the Italian Renaissance but with costuming, set design and casting that reference today’s trends.

“The play, I think, is in fact good for any moment in time,” says Rodríguez, artistic director at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre. “We’re not trying to do a museum piece.”

Current haute couture on international fashion runways furnished the inspiration for the costumes’ antique floral patterns. Wardrobe pieces evoke Botticelli paintings with a modern aesthetic, says Rodríguez. Color palettes that suggest water are worn by the Capulets while the Montagues are arrayed in fiery hues.

“Color-conscious” casting, says Rodríguez, doesn’t intend to show diversity or the acting company’s depth. It was a strategic choice to reinforce similarities between Shakespeare’s two warring houses, he says. The households literally are alike in their racial and gender distribution, making it impossible to infer the clash is ethno-cultural, says Rodríguez.

Leaving the reason for the ancient grudge unspecified was a stroke of Shakespearean genius. Re-enactors may be tempted to invent a reason for the feud, says Rodríguez. But ambiguous origins for so much violence and enmity invites audiences throughout the centuries to project their own world view onto the story, he says. In fact, the universal themes are alarmingly relevant today, he says.

“We continue to live in a world where hate and bias are taught and passed on to the subsequent generation,” Rodríguez says in his “Director’s Vision” in the season’s “Illuminations” guide.

Subjugation of women throughout history and the present day also provides invaluable context, despite actresses cast in some traditionally male roles. While some modern productions of “Romeo and Juliet” skim over female oppression, Rodríguez says he emphasizes that the lovers’ world is “not a liberated society.”

“This is a young woman who is really trapped in her circumstances,” he says, adding that Juliet, improbably, is one of the play’s strongest and most well-spoken characters.

As Romeo and Juliet lay plans to defy their families, the church, society and fate, their voices are “shocking,” not only by the standards of the day, but also of today, Rodríguez says. The uneasy relationships between teens and adults, he says, is depicted in more detail than interactions between the couple, who have only four scenes together.

“A lot of kids are gonna see an amazing pair of young people,” he says. “It’s really the perfect place to encounter Shakespeare.”

And the venue, itself, is perfectly appointed for some of theater’s most iconic moments.

“The Elizabethan is basically built to do the balcony scene,” Rodríguez says.

Performed outdoors in Shakespeare’s time, the plot and scenic progression of “Romeo and Juliet” use the elements and waning light evident at the Elizabethan to full effect, says Rodríguez. It’s a setting, a mood, a story for falling in love with the festival.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

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