Probing at the heart of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ as Shakespeare tragedy returns to the Old Globe Theatre


Somewhere out there — maybe lurking in a forgotten corner of Shakespeare fan fiction, maybe coming up next on the Hallmark Channel — is a variation on “Romeo and Juliet” where everything turns out just fine for the young lovebirds.

Romance gets respected. Vengeance gets rejected. Swords get sheathed. Stars get all that cross'ing business out of their systems.

And the pair’s feuding parents bury their beef, instead of (spoiler alert) their kids.

In the words of those bards from the Beach Boys: Wouldn’t it be nice?

But then, wouldn’t it be hardly Shakespeare at all?

“Right,” Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein says with a smile. “It would be nice if just once the letter got through to Mantua” — thus informing Romeo that Juliet isn’t really dead, and so ultimately preventing both from taking their own lives.

But Edelstein is not in the business of turning great literary tragedy into some kind of happily-ever-after, and in the new staging of “Romeo and Juliet” he’s directing for the Globe, a lot more is destined to come between the pair than the railing of that famous balcony.

Speaking of which: One moment during a Globe rehearsal of the balcony scene on a late-July afternoon seems to symbolize the aching divide between these two “star-cross’d lovers.”

Louisa Jacobson, as Juliet, and Aaron Clifton Moten, as Romeo, are reaching toward each other — fingers splayed, arms outstretched as far as they can go — as she perches on a tall platform.

And yet their hands never quite touch.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” as Juliet says at scene’s end, after the pair memorably profess their love. But the tragedy is, these two barely get to connect in the first place, in a story that pivots on maddening near-misses and promises unfulfilled.

And for that, says Edelstein, the play places clear blame on a festering legacy to which Romeo and Juliet are hapless heirs.

“The focus is on the pure, beautiful, delicate, fragile love of these two uncommonly witty and sensitive souls, that is snuffed out by an irrational hatred held by their parents,” says Edelstein of his Shakespeare Festival production. “That’s what the piece is about.”

For Edelstein, the play — whose plot is driven by the bad blood between the Capulet and Montague clans — compels those who have kids (himself included) to think: “How are the decisions we’re making, or failing to make, right now going to play out 20 years after we’re not here, in their lives?

“That’s what the play, I think, is asking people to reckon with. What happens to our children when we make selfish decisions?”

Liberated by the familiar

The Globe production, which closes the theater’s summer Shakespeare fest in the outdoor Davies Festival Theatre, is Edelstein’s first try at “Romeo and Juliet” as a director, although he’s been involved with the play in other roles as part of his previous work at New York’s Public Theater.

It’s one of a dwindling number of Shakespeare works he has not yet staged; Edelstein’s Bard past directorial ventures include a production of “As You Like It” that starred Gwyneth Paltrow, and a Central Park staging of “Julius Caesar” with Jeffrey Wright.

Artists often like to talk of working in a “creative sandbox,” but Edelstein’s “Romeo and Juliet” unfolds in a literal one — the centerpiece of Takeshi Kata’s scenic design.

It’s the place where Edelstein and the cast will dig at finding their own interpretation of a piece that has not only been produced near-continuously for hundreds of years, but has become cultural shorthand for passionate romance.

“I think the familiarity of the play is a kind of freedom,” Edelstein says, chatting alongside Jacobson and Moten during a rehearsal break. “It’s a very quirky production that we’re doing, full of music.

“The first half is very funny — unusually so, in my experience of the play. And there’s a certain sense in which everybody feels they own it, and so that gives us permission to own it, too.”

After, all, “if the whole world thinks they know what ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is, why shouldn’t the three of us know what it is, too?

“And that means you go into one of these scenes you think you know, and you have license to discover it afresh. That’s what’s been so much fun. And what’s been great about these two is that they are incredibly alive in the moment — two actors who, uncommon in my experience, are incapable of a false move.

“So there’s a kind of aliveness in the moment, in particular between the two of them, but I think generally in our company, that’s really refreshing. That’s what blows the dust off of what we all think we know about ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”

Both Moten, a Juilliard School alumnus whose budding TV/film career includes a role on the upcoming Fox drama “neXT,” and Jacobson, a just-minted Yale School of Drama grad whose credits include shows at Yale Rep and the Williamstown Theatre Festival, have some Shakespeare on their resumes.

But neither has done “Romeo and Juliet” before, save Jacobson’s brief middle-school stint as the character she’s now playing at the Globe.

“It’s a dream role, of course,” says Jacobson. “It’s one of the best characters in the world to be able to play. It’s an honor. And I just don’t want to do her a disservice.

“I’m kind of a perfectionist with my work, and want everything to be great all the time. But I know rehearsal is a time for me to make mistakes and learn things. To be pleasantly surprised by understanding a scene or a line completely differently than I had thought it was before.”

“And Juliet — my understanding of her is shifting and changing constantly. You think: ‘Oh, sweet, innocent, beautiful, in love.’ But she’s so intense.

“(And) now we’re coming up on the Act 2 intensity, where she’s threatening suicide. And it’s an intense thing to try to understand. It is a cry for help. And in a lot of ways I think this play is about teen suicide — the ease with which, if something’s not going the way you want it, and people who are supposed to be guides for you — your parents and elders — are not really listening to what you want, how are you going to get them to listen to you?

“So that’s something that’s been on my mind — the darker parts of this play. I’m trying to wrap my mind around them.”

For Moten, who was first transfixed by reading “Romeo and Juliet” around age 12, wading into the play now has been a journey of rediscovery,

“Everyone thinks they know the story of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” as he puts it. “So if anything is surprising to me, it’s the things I didn’t track before, the things I didn’t notice about the story. Even things sounding different to me now, being older.

“It’s rediscovering it at a different age. You hear it differently. You connect with characters who you could not see eye-to-eye with before. They ring out as the most truthful to you now.

“So that, and there are so many famous lines from this play. But our job is to make them sound as though they’re new thoughts. To make ‘Romeo, Romeo!’ ring out in a different way for us, in our present moment.”

Both actors praise Edelstein’s guidance in that effort; Moten has been a fan since reading the director’s book “Thinking Shakespeare” in college, and Jacobson says that “it is really nice to be doing Shakespeare with a director who knows his Shakespeare.”

Edelstein is calling the setting of his production “timeless contemporary,” meaning “there’s no specific period, but the silhouette of the clothing is contemporary. So you feel very easily that you understand who these people are — who’s rich, who’s not. Who’s avant-garde and who’s straightforward. Who does what job.

“You just look at the people and say, ‘OK, I understand who they are,’ and there’s a real transparency and immediacy to it.

“I get asked this question all the time: Why isn’t it in Shakespeare’s clothing? Well, the words are there. The relationships are there. The dynamics of the story are there. The themes are there. To me, the fact of the period is simply a vehicle for immediacy, and that’s all we’re trying to do.

“We’re trying to own it ourselves. And find what’s inside it.”

“R&J” with a twist

Rounding up a few times that creative reinventions of “Romeo and Juliet” have been seen on San Diego-area stages:

“The Last Goodbye,” Old Globe (2013): The writer Michael Kimmel set Shakespeare’s story to the songs of the late singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, for a rock musical that had a hard-hitting Globe staging under Broadway wunderkind Alex Timbers’ direction. (The production received significant commercial enhancement money but has yet to land on Broadway.)

“Shakespeare’s R&J,” Cygnet Theatre (2013): Cygnet memorably revived Joe Calarco’s 1998 piece, a kind of play-within-a-play (with an all-male cast) set at a Catholic school in the 1960s, where students’ lives are intertwined with the Shakespeare saga.

“Romeo, Romeo & Juliet,” Roustabouts Theatre (2018): Ruff Yeager, co-founder of San Diego’s Roustabouts, wrote this world-premiere comedy that took cues from Shakespeare for its story of a love triangle at a summer-stock theater company.

“West Side Story,” Moonlight Stage Productions (2019): You might’ve heard of this one. The show, with its matchless compositions by Leonard Bernstein, has become one of the most beloved musicals of all time. Vista’s Moonlight stages the story of warring New York gangs — and the young lovers caught in the middle — as its next production, beginning Aug. 14.

‘Romeo and Juliet’

When: Previews begin Aug. 11. Opens Aug. 17. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, through Aug. 31; then, 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays, Sept. 1-15.

Where: Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Old Globe, Balboa Park.

Tickets: $30 and up

Phone: (619) 234-5623