The Joffrey Ballet’s 2016 production of Prokofiev’s and Pastor’s Romeo & Juliet opens upon a scene of stark contrasts, not just the obvious black and white of the costume and set design or the unexpected stillness of the dancers upon the stage as old newsreels play in the background, but what these visual contrasts represent—the age-old conflict between the Capulets and Montagues. These two families must share a stage world where everything is black and white, and here we are no longer talking about visuals. Family, politics, worldview separate the two groups, and group choreography scenes at the beginning of acts 1 and 2 make this clear. Costuming clearly articulates the families, and the choreography itself is a striking mixture of dance and stage combat, movements somehow both graceful and stark that express the tension and violence beneath the surface. The climactic street fight between Mercutio (Derrick Agnoletti) and Tybalt (Temur Suluashvili) in particular has such a sense of both regimented movements and chaos that the audience is left stunned when it is over, even those who knew the deaths were coming. This is a world and a stage where both nothing and everything is shocking, where black and white and harsh reds combine with militaristic music and sometimes jerky dance steps to convey a sense of animosity that is barely, and sometimes not, concealed.
In the midst of this world, Romeo and Juliet: star-cross’d lovers clearly demarcated by their pale blue dress and peaceful but passionate movements. The performance of Amanda Assucena in particular as Juliet on the night of October 14 was masterful, both in Assucena’s execution of notated choreography but more importantly in her embodiment of the struggling spirit and nearly inexpressible grief of the heroine as she mourns not just for her lover but her family and her entire world. It is a role needing to be both danced and acted, and Assucena excelled at both. Our Juliet and her Romeo, Alberto Velazquez, drew tears and a standing ovation from the audience on this particular night. The tragedy of the plot and the triumph of the performance were quite clearly theirs.
The lovers and their families and friends are set, in Pastor’s version, in a twentieth-century Italy; moving between the acts, the action moves forward in time, drawing a thread between the Fascism of Mussolini’s 1930s, the violence of the Red Brigade 1960s, and the right-wing political parties of contemporary Italy. The political implications of the production are clear, with the Capulets as the dominant, autocratic Fascists and then the right-wing traditionalists, and the Montagues as the leftist opposition. The conflict is far larger than the two families, the forces with which the two lovers must contend almost insurmountable in scope. While an interesting interpretation that brings relevance for the audience into the performance, such a depiction does have its drawbacks. In Shakespeare’s play, the Capulets and Montagues get no more description than their brief introduction in the Prologue as “two households, both alike in dignity” (line 1, emphasis mine) who are consumed in an “ancient grudge” (line 3) of which no one seems to remember the origins. Shakespeare gives us two nearly identical foes. The audience sides with no one but the lovers, who seem caught up in a pointless struggle that ends easily enough at the end of the play, when the two families reconcile over their shared tragedy. In the Joffrey’s performance, the all-black, military-style costumes and borderline goose-stepping of the Capulets leave no room for ambiguity: the audience is clearly meant to side with the Montagues in this ongoing battle. Their vibrantly colored costumes in the second half and the lovable antics of Mercutio underscore this. Such an interpretation tends to remove Romeo from danger and shift the audience’s sympathies wholly onto Juliet, who might be happy living with her Romeo and his family if only she could escape her own. While the political dimension may add depth and emotion for a modern audience, it is not very true to the spirit of Shakespeare’s text, where both lovers are equally victims and where their deaths, though tragic, seem not to have been in vain when their fathers make peace.
But the presence of the modern audience is key, as the audience is to any performing art. While a Shakespearean scholar may take slight issue with the recasting of the Montagues and Capulets as good and evil, the significance of Pastor’s version for our contemporary world is clear. Italian politics are not the only ones under scrutiny: the timelessness of the performance is matched only by its timeliness, in an American election cycle where we seem as starkly divided as the two families. The Joffrey’s performance highlights not just the never-ending cycle of violence and war between two Italian families, but the perpetuation of conflict everywhere in our world. It is telling that the performance ends without the reconciliation scene that Shakespeare’s text provides; both families simply march away from each other bearing their dead, heedless of the others’ pain, in a display reminiscent of two hardened politicians who refuse to shake hands. The imagery and performances offered in the Joffrey’s Romeo & Juliet may depart from the text, but they are yet another example of how fully the stage is capable of bringing the text to life.
Anna Ullmann is a doctoral candidate in her fourth year at Loyola University Chicago specializing in Shakespeare and non-Shakespearean early modern drama, early modern historiography, and Marxist literary theory. She received an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and her BA in English and sociology from Kalamazoo College.