Setting Romeo and Juliet in a contemporary urban setting inevitably draws comparisons to West Side Story, even though Barbara Gaines’s current staging for Chicago Shakes (the first time she’s ever directed the play) resists that interpretation by casting the warring Montague and Capulet families across racial and ethnic lines. Mr. Capulet (James Newcomb) is a soused WASP, while Mrs. Capulet (Lia D. Mortensen) is in MILF mode, hooking up with Nate Burger’s Mercutio at the party where their Black daughter first sees the Latinx Romeo. But there’s a frustrating lack of contextual specificity here that makes it harder to understand the forces driving the central lovers apart, despite beguiling performances from Brittany Bellizeare as a forthright Juliet and Edgar Miguel Sanchez as a histrionic Romeo.
For example, the thumb-biting insult in the first scene now comes from the elder Capulet—yet the hotheaded man showing off for the angry younger men of his tribe on the basketball court turns expansive host, concerned about preserving niceties at his party. (Setting the balcony scene on Juliet’s porch, with her dad passed out in a lawn chair mere feet away, is a fun choice, though.) The violence in the fight scenes (directed by Rick Sordelet) is bloodier than what I’ve seen in past productions, but the roots of that violence as they relate to current socioeconomic conditions in Chicago remain murky, which ends up distancing us from the urgency of the young lovers’ plight. The text is clear, the humor is sharp, and the physical staging crisp—but Gaines hasn’t found a way to articulate what this play in this setting really says about our city today. v