SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) – Syracuse University’s Department of Drama is putting on a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Syracuse Stage. The first preview began on Valentine’s day and the show runs through February 22nd. But, isn’t the classic retelling of Shakespeare taught in English class.
Everything from the show’s soundtrack to the costumes communicates a modern feel but no element of the show stands out in that regard more than the romance. Director Thom Miller cast women for both Romeo and Juliet.
“Our production was focused to be a contemporary investigation of a classical play and so that included asking a lot of questions like ‘what does a family look like in 2020?’ ‘what does love look like in 2020?’ and ‘what gives us a contemporary feeling within this classical story?’ said Miller. “But ultimately, we wanted to come down to the same theme of Romeo and Juliet. The major theme that I think is a divided community will ruin the most beautiful things and that’s true love.”
Miller did not go into auditions with the plan of casting a female Romeo, but he did have plans to gender swap another character from the beginning. That character is Mercutio, one of Romeo’s closest friends, as well as a character that Miller is fascinated by.
He wanted a female Mercutio but “didn’t know I was going to cast a female Romeo until Isabel Rodriguez auditioned,” Miller said. “I thought that she was phenomenal and she has an ability that you can’t really teach which is the ability to just crack open and she does that in such a beautiful way and I wanted that in my play.”
Romeo is Isabel Rodriguez’s first opportunity to play a gender-swapped character on stage. That presented the challenge of “not reverting and thinking that I have to be a guy and be a Romeo that is someone else. I really just wanted to view the character in a plain simple light,” Rodriguez said.
Another aspect of all of the performances is finding ways to modernize Shakespeare. Rodriguez talked about how Thom would ask her to modernize how she acted. Eventually it became second nature.
“It is very freeing and makes you view the text in a different way as well and something else comes out in the text,” Rodriguez said. “When you free it up, it opens up this whole new world where you’re just free to play.”
Thom Miller’s approach to music also highlighted the freedom that adaptation gives. Artists like Kanye West, Billie Eilish, Mac Miller and the Beastie Boys populate the production’s soundtrack separating it from many Shakespeare adaptations.
“There’s such inherent musicality to Shakespeare itself but when you’re looking at potentially contemporizing something then you also have to say, ‘well what does music look like at this moment in this musical piece?” Miller said.
Fashion was another element that Miller found freeing in his adaptation process. Specifically, he wanted to find a creative and contemporary way to distinguish the two rival families in the show, Montagues and Capulets. According to Miller, color is usually how productions distinguish the two families, but he wanted something different.
“We have one family that’s like Zara, Prada and the other that is like Yeezy and Adidas,” Miller said. “They both take wealth to own those things and they both embody wealth but one in a very like sleek and more streamlined (way) and one that’s more like an urban fashion.”
For Thom the most important part of the play isn’t the showy artistic flourishes, it’s theme.
“I think what we identify in this play is that the language of love isn’t really anything to do with a sonnet, it isn’t anything to do with talking” Thom said. “The language of love, I think, is listening and so we wanted to focus our production on that.”