Art will find a way. If there is any encouraging lesson from the pandemic, it’s that the essential, human need to create and communicate won’t be stopped. Arguably, the story, expression, and connection that theater provides is intrinsically human. The audience experience has been transformed by the coronavirus, and while virtual theater has been a mixed bag, when something works, it can deliver the full emotional impact of something exceptional in a traditional venue.
For the second time, The Public Theater has turned to audio to provide productions of Shakespeare. Last summer’s “Richard II” was timely and exciting (and is still available at no charge). Now, we have a dynamic — and often exciting — production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
With no access to a stage and all the visual elements of theater, The Public, in conjunction with WNYC Studios and under the direction of Saheem Ali (who also directed the “Richard II”), have made the bold choice of retelling the classic story as “Romeo y Julieta” as a free podcast with a script that combines a Spanish translation with English so the text moves fluidly between languages. Don’t worry, a high school level of Spanish combined with a familiarity with the play is all you need to understand it, and even that is not essential. The Spanish edition is based on a translation by Alfredo Michel Modenessi, and the full script was developed by Ali with Ricardo Pérez González. The Public has also provided a script on their site that can be downloaded to follow along.
The Spanish edition, in particular, is exciting. It has a lyricism that echoes the writing of Calderón, a Spanish playwright, writing a few decades after Shakespeare. It has an urgency and poetry that encourages one to listen closely and become swept up into the drama.
And there is drama aplenty. One of the defining elements of this production is the youth of Romeo and Julieta. While neither Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Julieta, nor Juan Castano, who plays Romeo, are teenagers, they are convincingly so in the audio format. Both actors deliver a sense of innocent passion that heightens the tension in the risk and danger the star-crossed lovers face in going against their families.
There are also fine expressions of adolescent heat and rebellion in Verona, from Hiram Delgado as Tybalt, Julieta’s cousin, to Irene Sofia Lucio as Mercutio, who delivers one of the best speeches in Shakespeare, the “Queen Mab” speech.
Ali also effectively expresses the complexity and moral issues of the play in the Nurse and Friar Lawrence. Ivonne Coll as the Nurse has warmth and humor, but there is darkness in her embrace of expediency as she advises Julieta to marry Paris, despite already being married to Romeo, who has been banished and is therefore as good as dead. Friar Lawrence, who hatches the scheme to have Julieta seem to die so she can escape marrying Paris and, not incidentally, save the Friar from knowingly making Julieta a bigamist, is often seen as kindhearted and well-intentioned. Yet he is also self-serving, and when the tragedy is revealed, manages to talk his way out of responsibility in hiding behind the church. Shakespeare had no love for the powerful in the church who hid behind their authority, and Julio Monge as Friar Lawrence effectively conveys the monk’s questionable character.
With original music by Michael Thurber, and sound design by Bray Poor and Jessica Paz, the world of the play is vibrantly alive. Precisely because there are no visual cues to convey period and the cadence of the speech is often contemporary, and in a few places near the outset reminiscent of “Hamilton,” the production has an immediacy and presence that is consistently compelling.
There are some in the world of academia who argue that Shakespeare is no longer relevant. This production stands as a strong refutation of that argument. Over and above the diversity expressed through the script, which in itself is groundbreaking and grippingly dramatic, the experience of listening to this classic with new ears is often visceral. The urgency that Nyong’o brings to “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds…” as she waits for Romeo to come or the grief in Castano as he proclaims “Oh, I am fortune’s fool!” after the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio, cut right to the heart. Shakespeare’s understanding of humanity remains timeless.
The free podcast will be available for the next year, and even though it’s a podcast you can hear on your phone as you go about your day, you’ll want to sit down and immerse yourself in this world. You can revel in the power of the theater, and like me, you may find yourself often on the edge of your seat and deeply moved.