Theatre: Romeo and Juliet Gets A Modern Twist

June 30, 2016 - By Justin Biel

Theatricum Botanicum’s production of Romeo and Juliet opened June 11, kicking off the acclaimed repertory company’s summer season of plays.

Enjoyed by a packed house in the beautiful outdoor amphitheater, the Shakespearean love story was given a “Theatricum Twist,” placing the tale of star-crossed lovers within the modern day political and cultural clash of the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

“To me, great plays become classics because they speak out loud and visually touch the human heart and condition of any era,” writes Director Ellen Geer in the Program Notes. “Carefully, and with deep respect, you can alter the playwright’s era, and heighten the story to reverberate more deeply for the audience of today.” 

Moved from 16th century Verona and set in current-day East Jerusalem, this production positions the Capulet family as Israeli, and the Montagues as Palestinian. Prince Escalus of Verona has become the Prime Minister of Israel and Count Paris, a member of its ruling class. 

While keeping dialogue and storyline mostly consistent with the Shakespearean original, Geer’s production uses costume, music, character names and cultural references to bring the audience into the play’s modern, Middle Eastern setting. 

From the opening scene it becomes clear this is not the traditional Romeo and Juliet. The play opens with Israeli Capulets patrolling a border checkpoint dressed in army fatigues while the Palestinian Montagues wait in line, hoping for clear passage. With the impending brawl broken up by the Prime Minister wearing a business suit and yarmulke, we are delighted to wonder where Geer’s re-imagined interpretation will take us next. Indeed, next is Capulet’s ball where we are surprised—and delighted—when the entertainment turns out to be a Rap group. 

Geer says she went to great lengths to cast the play. An ethnically diverse ensemble of young actors in the roles of the hot-blooded teenage rivals gave an unprecedented energy and pacing to Shakespeare’s simple love story that is profoundly layered with the best and worst of human nature. The first act is often funny and ribald, just barely setting us up for the tragic ending.

In this version, Shakespeare’s European characters have been replaced to fit within the ethnic context of modern-day Jerusalem, down to renaming them in the program’s cast list with Hebrew and Arabic names. Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio and Tybalt retain Shakespeare’s names, but Lady Capulet is now Geveret Capulet and Benvolio becomes Mohammad Al-loh. Oh, well. What’s in a name, anyway?

Props, songs and cultural elements are also worked into the performance in fun and relevant ways, keeping the show both fresh and authentic to the new setting. 

Thanks to a number of skilled lead actors and a solid ensemble cast, the Romeo and Juliet of today will leave you enthralled. 

Young Romeo, played by Shaun Taylor-Corbett, delivers an exciting performance. Taylor-Corbett’s portrayal takes the audience on a roller coaster, reaching emotional highs and lows that soar throughout the open-air theater with creative mastery and range. Newcomer, 17-year-old Judy Durkin, a decade-long student at Theatricum Botanicum, plays the role of Juliet. Her performance, well rooted in mastery of the Shakespearean art form, is a pleasure from start to finish. Other key performances are given by Rav Val Denegro as Mercutio and Melora Marshall as Nurse. 

Denegro plays the role of the feisty Mercutio brilliantly, holding the audience at attention with wit and flair, especially in the “Queen Mab” speech. Marshall, as Nurse, is Juliet’s confidante and friend, a role she fills with beautiful acting, perfect comedic timing and plenty of passion. 

Theatricum’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet shows why Shakespeare’s masterpiece stands the test of time. Watching the performance, one cannot deny the similarities between the problems of Shakespeare’s 16th century Verona and the world of today. It reminds us that prejudice and hatred continue to be prevalent forces in the world now, as it was then. 

“Daily, young people negotiate through what was not created by them, but by parents and cultural differences that they have been brought up with since birth. To honor parents is all young people want. With this kind of strife, our children suffer,” said Geer. 

Any lover of this classic play will be astounded by the quality performance of this Shakespearean original, while also being delighted by the enhancements. n

Romeo and Juliet runs through October 2. Completing this year’s series of plays are: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that runs through September 23; TOM, a play adaptation from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and runs through October 1; Imaginary Invalid, Saturday July 9 – October. 2; and Titus Andronicus, Saturday, July 30 - October 1. 

Tickets range from $10-$38.50; children six and under are free. For a complete performance schedule and to purchase tickets: (310) 455-3723;

Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290.