Few tales are more familiar than William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, thanks to countless school plays, operas, ballets and a popular 1996 film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. And Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival (CSF) is an old hand when it comes to updating Shakespeare into contemporary settings.
Brian Isaac Phillips, a long-time company member who directs CSF's current production of Romeo & Juliet, tweaks the story of forbidden love into a conflict over race. Granted, the play has been portrayed along color lines before, most famously in West Side Story. Yet the CSF production speaks directly to Cincinnati, a city still struggling to address its own racial problems since riots broke out in Over-the-Rhine and other neighborhoods in April 2001.
Inside CSF's downtown theater, Verona remains the home of the feuding Capulets and Montagues. As expected, Romeo, the Montagues' only son, falls instantly in love with Juliet, Capulet's only daughter.
Like many contemporary retellings of classic stories, some of the plays' tweaks appear heavy-handed.
Kenderick Hardy, an Ohio State University acting student who plays Romeo, is dressed like a gang-banger. A thick gold chain dangles from his neck, while a pair of baggy shorts dangles from his hips. Romeo as Hip Hop thug is a recognizable image, although I wonder if that was the best idea Phillips and his CSF colleagues could dream up.
Ghillian Porter, a member of the CSF Young Company, plays Juliet as a love-struck girl. In her hands, Juliet's desire for Romeo is dictated by quiet resolve. But Porter's subtlety is shattered by the Jim Crow antics of Sandi McCree, who seemingly bases her Screaming Mimi performance as Juliet's handmaiden on Butterfly McQueen from Gone With the Wind.
To his credit, Phillips tries hard to connect Shakespeare's 1595 play with modern-day Cincinnati. Handguns replace swords and daggers. Gunshots take precedence over sword fights. Modern clothes soften the foreign sound of Shakespeare's original dialogue: "Do you bite your thumb at me, Sir?"
CSF is intent on promoting diversity with its interracial Romeo & Juliet. Still, by the look of the Friday-night crowd that watched the play, I'm not convinced the company is reaching its intended audience. The crowd was mostly white and older, a letdown considering the youth and diversity onstage.
The downtown boycott, promoted by activist groups like the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati and the Black United Front, continues to keep people from attending downtown performances, including CSF. Unfortunately, Romeo & Juliet is the one cultural event that speaks to racial themes as passionately as the coalition.
In a better place, the coalition and CSF would collaborate on a show like this. But in Mayor Charlie Luken's Cincinnati, racial conflicts remain unsolved and the downtown boycott continues. A well-intended production like this one fights the good fight in trying to better Cincinnati, but even CSF knows it's hard to battle a stubborn City Hall.
Over the last few days, I'd heard plenty of sound bites of Cincinnati Vice Mayor Alicia Reece ballyhooing the Red Hot Weekend. I laughed every time she uttered the phrase "Red Hot!" because she sounded like some carnival barker. Reece promoted all the beer-and-brats events, but I don't remember her once mentioning Romeo & Juliet, the one downtown activity that spoke directly to what's happening throughout Cincinnati.
After two days of revelry, Oktoberfest is over and it's safe to say Reece has had her fill of beer and weenies. She might even be looking for something to do that doesn't involve plastic cups and portable toilets.
If she or anyone else in power is willing to listen, I think Romeo & Juliet has something very important to say.