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Review: UW School of Drama’s reimagined 'Romeo and Jules' falls flat

Despite energizing performances, it seems like this show tried to be as woke as possible with minimal adaptation

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Romeo and Jules

Jamie Dahl (left) and Elliott Chin (left) as Jules and Romeo, respectively.

The UW School of Drama’s “Romeo and Jules” promised to be “a gender-expansive reimagining of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’” It opened April 17 at the Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse Theatre. The cast delivered an energetic performance that seemed to be well-received by the audience. The play certainly deserves credit for being gender-expansive, representing the UW’s diverse community. However, the adaptation does not quite reach the level of a “reimagining” that would have allowed the play to achieve the goals set out in the program.

The play opens with the classic prologue given by the chorus, played by Miranda White, a sophomore at the UW. She adeptly delivers the Shakespearean language before switching to modern English. The combination of classic Elizabethan costume and modern clothing, along with the play’s description, set an expectation that the two-hour play would explore modern themes beyond that of the original story.

Audience members with this expectation may be disappointed to find that the play only has one real plot tweak and certain pronoun changes.

The main character, Jules, portrayed by Jaime Dahl, is a non-binary reimagining of Juliet who uses “they/them” pronouns. In some of their first scenes, Jules’ parents accidentally misgender them as “her,” but the majority of characters accept their preferred pronouns with no explanation. In the second half of the play, there is a pivotal scene when Jules’ father, Capulet, played by Spencer Goodin, berates Jules for refusing to marry Paris and intentionally misgenders them by using the pronoun “her.”

It was a powerful moment, but one that relied on an audience being previously aware of the emotional implications of a non-binary individual being misgendered. This severely limits the scope of the play by having one of its major themes of identity only being accessible to a like-minded audience.

Goodin, playing Capulet, delivered an impressive performance, conveying the emotion of a strict and somewhat abusive father. However, the moment lost some of its potential impact because of the lack of development of Jules’ character. The earlier misgendering and Capulet’s subsequent use of it to punish Jules demonstrated that this was an issue for the character, yet Jules’ lack of development beforehand was a missed opportunity for the audience to really connect with the character’s experience.

Shakespearean plays have been done in many different styles for hundreds of years, and there is an understandable battle between maintaining the integrity of the work and modifying it to discuss more modern themes. In this play, the adapters erred on the side of the original dialogue, but there is one major plot difference near the end.

If you're concerned about spoilers, skip to the next paragraph, because here it is:

Jules does not kill themself over the body of Romeo. Shakespeare fans will be shocked. The consistent lack of alteration earlier in the script makes the massive change to a centuries-old, gut-wrenching scene undeserved. In the original, it is the death of the two lovers that brings the warring Capulets and Montagues together, highlighting the tragedy of needless, stubborn resentment and revenge. Not only does Jules’ continued life erase the aforementioned message of the original, but it also belittles the sacrifice that Romeo made.

Without earlier development, this edit illustrates that adapters did not invest time into understanding the foundational themes of the text and therefore what it would take to adapt it to their own needs. Instead of the triumphant note such an ending intended, audience members may be left confused or even angry.

Despite that, there are some high points to the show. One of the highlights was the use of the sparse set. It had a large cage-like structure in the back, and with careful choreography, the actors climbed it at intervals, putting candles on the rungs. The solemn atmosphere this created for the final tomb scene translated beautifully on stage.

The acting was also excellent. Elizabethan language can be difficult to understand, let alone memorize and properly emote, all of which the actors took great pains to do and do it well. It’s unfortunate that the energy it takes to perfect such language wasn’t used to its full potential when it could have been better put toward evolving the play. Utilizing American English throughout, rather than just a couple of times, could have allowed for this flexibility, and may have done a service to the play's intention of depicting a modern story of identity and empathy.

The play shows until April 28 at the Floyd and Delores Jones Playhouse Theatre. Tickets can be purchased through the show’s website and UW students can purchase up to two tickets at the discounted price of $10 each.

The verdict: Despite a great set and solid acting, it seems like Shakespeare wanted to say something, UW School of Drama wanted to say something else, and both messages got muddled in “Romeo and Jules.”

Reach writer Julia Stromatt at Twitter: @JuliaStrmtt

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