Shakespearian works are still highly relevant today, but if a production isn’t accessible, especially to the younger generations, then the Bard’s wise words can fall on deaf ears. For the second year in a row, Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater is starting off their 33rd season with a Shakespearian work. This year, they have a dynamic twist on “Romeo and Juliet” that can be described as a poetic rock opera.
Through an ingenious approach, director Louis Butelli pares down the romantic tragedy to the essentials in every way imaginable, making it all the more powerful. First the stage is laid bare, with no set and the black utilitarian wall of the theater fully exposed. Five silver-colored aluminum chairs and a grand piano are the drama’s sole distinguishing features. Even the cast is at a minimum, with five actors, leaving the focus on the two young lovers and their fateful story.
Alec Funiciello is the starry-eyed Romeo who falls hard for the “fair Juliet” (Ruby Wolf). Funiciello and Wolf evoke a natural attraction on stage, escalating the relationship. Funiciello is a lighthearted and physical Romeo, who loves wrestling with his pals as much as he does falling in love. Wolf (who grew up on the Cape, and was last seen at WHAT in “I Am a Camera”) elegantly balances poise with teenage impulsiveness, making her character all the more relatable. During a beautifully choreographed (by Evelyn Chen) balcony scene, Juliet appears to pace high above Romeo, as an actor repeatedly places the chairs one in front of the other, as she steps forward upon them.
Nathan Winkelstein (last seen in WHAT’s “Alabama Story”) plays three roles, and his switching between Benvolio and the Nurse are rapid fire and comical. Lifting a scarf onto his head, and a twisting a shirt wrapped round his waist to the front, he hilariously becomes Juliet’s confidant the Nurse.
Similarly, Paul Corning Jr. portrays three characters with ease, and when he transitions between the Friar and Mercutio, Romeo humorously reminds Corning that the Friar’s cross needs to be tucked into the actor’s shirt, and his hooded sweatshirt pulled back, before he moves into the role of Mercutio.
As the imaginative composer of this innovative show, Matthew Dean Marsh spends most of his time expertly playing the piano while singing, but he also portrays Lady Capulet with a distant and flighty manner when dealing with Juliet.
The first part of this lyrical rock opera is a mix of dialogue and sung verses, accompanied by piano and guitar. But as the tensions mount, the play becomes a full musical, propelled forward by the frenzied notes, starting with the Friar giving instructions for Juliet’s faked death. Without an intermission, the 70-minute show has a natural flow that centers on the young lovers, removing all the extra storylines. Intensifying the action, no time is lost during scene changes, as black umbrellas are creatively used as screens to facilitate quick changes.
As much as an electric guitar might seem incongruous with the Bard’s spoken words, this high-energy and deconstructed “Romeo and Juliet” strikingly demonstrates how the verses naturally pair with music. Surprisingly, the normally challenging Elizabethan English (that most high-school students dread) becomes readily understandable and naturally contemporized through the songs, magnifying the very chilling ending of this famously tragic tale.
Of special note, WHAT’s hip production of “Romeo and Juliet” is in association with New York City based Psittacus Productions and Lincoln Center Education.
“Romeo and Juliet”
At Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater
Through April 9
Information and reservations: 508-349-9428