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Major Curda and Dorcas Leung in ROMEO AND JULIET. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Star Ledger: Modern ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in the round reminds us theater should be fun | Review

by Patrick Maley

Theater should be fun.

High-minded social critique and perhaps soul-wrenching tragedy notwithstanding, we should never forget that this activity we do as a society is quite goofy. We gather in groups to sit in the dark and watch other people traipse across an elevated platform and play pretend. It’s a weird and wonderful thing that we have done as humans consistently for thousands of years, and we should never allow ourselves to forget the sense of mischief and play that gives theater its foundational spirit.

This is a precept not lost on Hansol Jung and Dustin Wills, co-directors of Jung’s “modern verse translation” of “Romeo and Juliet” now running at Red Bank’s Two River Theater (and set for an Off-Broadway transfer in May). Produced in partnership with the National Asian American Theatre Company, the show has the feel of an acting troupe rolling into town, summoning a crowd, and putting on a show.

Presented in the round with slapdash costumes, performers (and occasionally props) playing multiple roles, and a consistently lighthearted spirit, the play marries the depths of emotion and tragedy that define with play with the whimsy of live performance that refuses at every turn to take itself too seriously.

The show is, at bottom, a fun night at the theater.

And the production is also a very good “Romeo and Juliet.” Jung and Wills have a great deal of fun shaping the show and guiding their cast, but they never lose sight of the play and its many investments in these characters and their story.

Jung’s “translation” may in truth add little to the affair: much of Shakespeare’s language remains in the script, and so Jung’s modern colloquial touchups often ring out awkwardly, sounding forced. The script is neither wholly Shakespeare nor wholly modern, and so the union between the two never proves entirely successful. The script also shows a peculiar commitment to accounting for every little nook of Shakespeare’s play, resulting in the show somehow managing to last close to three hours.

More impactful modernization comes through the music of Brian Quijada, who sometimes employs simple ukuleles and melodicas, sometimes unleashes the gorgeous voice of our Juliet, Dorcas Leung, and sometimes has the actors manipulate a microphone and looper, but in all cases adds layers of emotion that enhance the spirit of the show.

Major Curda works opposite Leung as Romeo, and both do excellent work at humanizing these by-now mythical lovers. Shakespeare did actors and directors no favors by demanding such complexity out of such young characters, but Curda and Leung teeter impressively on the edge between childish melodrama and deep passion. Part of the power of “Romeo and Juliet” is its portrait of two lovers forced to learn so much about themselves in such a crucible of emotion and fear. The play has to make us as adults want to step in and help cooler heads prevail while also making us realize that our title characters are too far gone for reason.

This show captures that spirit both with excellent acting throughout the company and also through the juxtaposition between the production’s fun and the obsessive, poisonous devotion of its stars. We want Romeo and Juliet to relax and join the party. But Curda and Leung make clear that tragedy cannot be abated by whimsy: these star-crossed lovers must pay a grave price for their devotion, even in a production as fun as this one.

Ultimately, in that fun, this “Romeo and Juliet” celebrates its medium. Jung and Wills have crafted this show in such a way that captures the vividness of life-affirming spirit of theater. We pity poor Romeo and Juliet, but we’re eager nonetheless to join the party that this troupe has thrown for us.

“Romeo and Juliet”

Two River Theater Company

21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank

Tickets: available online ( Running through April 30.