ROMEO AND JULIET, Griffin Theatre Company, and Romeo and Juliet, Blindfaith Theatre Company, at Holy Covenant United Methodist Church. A detailed note in Griffin Theatre Company’s program acquaints us with the political situation in 1939 Italy, but since Romeo and Juliet is really just a tale of star-crossed lovers, all we need to know is that here the Capulets are pro-Fascist and the Montagues Jewish. Thus Tybalt and his hoodlum pals affect black-shirt uniforms, while Romeo (pronounced here “Roe-may-oh”) and his homeys wear yellow stars pinned to their coats.

After scoring a hit in 1997 with a Much Ado About Nothing set in post-World War II Sicily, it was only natural for Griffin to repeat its successful formula. On the plus side, the actors’ Veronese accents freshen the play’s well-worn speeches. And a sprinkling of Italian phrases adds piquancy to the familiar text, as does the updating of the original Elizabethan’s more obscure colloquialisms into modern idioms. Jann Iaco delivers a robust performance as the Nurse, and Ryan Patterson an inventive portrayal of Mercutio, dispatched in this production by a stray bullet from Tybalt’s Sabato-night special. Though Richard Barletta and William Massolia’s high-concept adaptation could use some fine-tuning (and their cast a dialect coach), any interpretation of Shakespeare that doesn’t require first-time viewers to bring Cliffs Notes is welcome.

Cliffs Notes are recommended for neophytes attending Blindfaith Theatre’s production of the same play. The sound of the el nearby worsens the already fuzzy acoustics of the Holy Covenant United Methodist Church sanctuary, further crippling the uniformly young players, who recite their speeches in lockstep pentameter all but devoid of rhetorical emphasis. Compounding the confusion is the choice to make this a modern-dress, cross-gender staging with lots of double and triple casting–a conceit that forces the freshly slain Tybalt to immediately reappear as the grieving Lady Capulet, with no more than a shawl to assist him (and us) in the transformation. Anna Constant’s Benvolio, Pedra Katherine O’Rourke’s Nurse, and Tiago Velho’s Tybalt have their moments, but they cannot make this debut production anything more than an overambitious classroom experiment.

–Mary Shen Barnidge