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A contemporary ‘Romeo and Juliet’ arrives at the Huntington this week

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
A contemporary ‘Romeo and Juliet’ arrives at the Huntington this week
Romeo (George Hampe) and Juliet (Lily Santiago) PHOTO: NILE HAWVER

Shakespeare’s classic love story, “Romeo and Juliet,” gets a modern makeover on the Huntington Theatre Company stage March 1 through 31. Featuring the original text and a diverse cast, this production examines important and relevant questions to the present day without pushing an overtly political agenda.

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Although no intentional contemporary commentary is made — in fact, it’s avoided — it’s impossible not to draw parallels between the ageless love story and the contemporary world.  “It’s a story about love but it’s also a story about the power of hate,” says George Hampe, who plays Romeo. That blind hate and the tribalism fueling the warring families is a central theme in this production and nods obliquely to contemporary divisive issues. Lily Santiago, who plays Juliet, says, “Sometimes it takes the destruction of something beautiful for people to wake up and start having conversations and realize that change needs to happen.”

Keeping it fresh

For the actors, the biggest challenge was to keep the show fresh. Audiences come in with a host of expectations about what Shakespeare should be, and those preconceived notions make it challenging for the actors to put their own stamp on things. “I think people discount the truth and realness of their love because they’re so young,” says Santiago. “And I just want to push against that.” She also says she wants to highlight how intelligent Juliet is for her age of 13.

Luckily, the world around the actors will be just as contemporary as their characters. Santiago and Hampe say their costumes are modeled on their own personalities. Juliet gets a bit of an edge with combat boots and an army jacket over her dresses. Romeo sports sneakers while hanging out with his friends. The set, too, will portray a modern world, although it’s not supposed to be a specific location. The actors also hinted that the violence in the production will reflect present-day methods. No more sword-fight duels for these warring factions. 

Despite the show’s categorization as a tragedy, Santiago and Hampe say they’re working the comedic elements as much as possible. “When you do a text like this, it’s so well known for playing the ending before we get there. But so much happens before then,” says Hampe. “It is a comedy until it can no longer be.”

The actors also believe that, despite the tragic way it happens, love does win for Romeo and Juliet. They do end up together, in death if not in life, and the world they leave behind changes as a result. Perhaps that change is possible for America, too. Hampe says, “How do you live in a world where you view the other one as pure evil? It’s truly asking the question, ‘What does it take to love your enemy?’”

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