‘Romeo y Julieta’ Review: Young Love in Two Languages

The scheme is so harebrained that it belongs more to farce than tragedy, but Shakespeare decided otherwise. In “Romeo and Juliet,” a tru...


The scheme is so harebrained that it belongs more to farce than tragedy, but Shakespeare decided otherwise. In “Romeo and Juliet,” a trusted friar gives the desperate Juliet a potion to drink so she can fake her own demise.

For a good “two and forty hours,” she will seem dead, he tells her, “and then awake as from a pleasant sleep.”

Awake in a tomb full of corpses, he means, but that’s a mere detail. In countless productions, the hatching of this plan is where the plot flies off the rails. What is he, nuts, suggesting this to a teenager who’s come to him for help?

Yet in the Public Theater’s bilingual audio production “Romeo y Julieta,” the extraordinary Julio Monge portrays Friar Lawrence with such warm ease and steadiness that the ploy seems — well, still exceedingly unwise, but almost persuasive. And the clergyman has his usual fine motive for aiding Julieta and her Romeo: to ally their warring families, turning their “rancor to pure love.”

The program note for this production suggests that the Public, the most populist of Off Broadway theaters, has a similar motive concerning our own fractured culture. If this free podcast is better at conveying the poetry than the pulse of Shakespeare, its intention is laudable anyway.

Starring Lupita Nyong’o as Julieta and Juan Castano as Romeo, the play is spoken in English and Spanish. It’s not a Sharks and Jets arrangement, either; the Montagues and Capulets are fluent in both languages. Switching nimbly from one to the other, midspeech or midsentence, is a means of welcoming speakers of either into the audience, and uniting us there — albeit at a distance from one another.

Directed by Saheem Ali, the play is gently adapted by Ali and Ricardo Pérez González, and based on a Spanish translation by Alfredo Michel Modenessi. Presented with WNYC Studios, the recording (with original music by Michael Thurber and sound design by Bray Poor and Jessica Paz) comes with a downloadable script showing every line in Spanish and English, making it easier to follow along.

Each actor in the cast of 22 takes great care with verbal clarity. Interpretive depth is harder to come by; textures of humor and passion, joy and grief, are scarce. Any scene where Monge appears, though, finds the others upping their games.

That includes the tantalizingly paired Nyong’o and Castano, whose lucid performances never ignite the rebellious adolescent fervor that drives these just-met, I-would-die-for-you lovers to their irrational extremes. Romeo and Julieta are kids, with all the tendencies toward personal drama of people their age, yet we don’t sense that in them or in Romeo’s friends.

It’s not a lack of talent on anyone’s part. What it feels like, largely, is a pandemic side effect. This show’s many artists couldn’t gather in a room to dig into characters and relationships; they rehearsed and recorded over Zoom. And when we listen to the podcast, and need the script to figure out who’s who in a crowd or a fight, we yearn for costume and gesture, for bodies in space.

This “Romeo y Julieta” is a production in need of a stage, when that’s possible again. For now, it’s waiting on its third dimension.

Romeo y Julieta
Available at publictheater.org, wnycstudios.org and on all major podcast platforms.

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