NJT’s ‘Romeo’ finds difficult transition to Mandate-era Palestine

Embattled Jerusalem, rather than fair Verona, is the setting for the New Jewish Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which opened last Thursday in the E. Desmond Lee Auditorium at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park. The relocation is not entirely successful, but there are some strong performances and memorable moments.

The idea to transfer the play to the Middle East was artistic director Kathleen Sitzer’s. Robin Weatherall, who adapted and directed this “Romeo and Juliet,” came up with the idea to set the story of the star-crossed lovers in the British Mandate for Palestine after World War II. The Capulets are Arabs and the Montagues are Jews.


Therein lies the problem with the transference to this particular time in this particular place. Here, Shakespeare’s feuding families bear the burden of representing polarized cultural and religious factions, living and worshipping in different worlds, rather than portraying a few hot-tempered citizens of a provincial town who happen to mistrust and dislike one another.

Even if you make the stretch to accept the conceit, even if you agree to embrace the idea that people in 1947 spoke the way these people speak, one piece just does not fit: Shakespeare’s Friar Laurence, who here is simply Laurence, a British army chaplain dressed in military garb. Under what circumstances would Jews and Arabs all seek spiritual guidance of any sort from a British army chaplain? In one scene, Juliet is asking Laurence if she should return to speak with him at evening mass, and in another scene soon after, Laurence is telling Juliet’s family to bear her body to the mosque. This is a crisis of faith that cannot be resolved.

Weatherall has introduced film footage (much of it presumably authentic) of newsreels depicting the uneasy cohabitation of Jews and Arabs in the violent community that eventually failed. Front pages from The Palestine Post of the day are interspersed with “special editions” announcing events occurring in the Capulet and Montague families – events that no matter how tragic never would have made the front page in that turbulent time.

Meg Rodd Gunther, who plays Juliet, is the sun in this production. She shines every moment she is on stage, spouting Shakespeare’s glorious words as though such stylized speech were her first language and carrying the audience along through the best and worst days of her short life. Her cadence, her intonation, the depth of emotion behind her every word is letter perfect. Gunther’s real-life husband, Rusty Gunther, offers a self-conscious portrayal of Romeo, seldom altering his too-loud delivery – though he did turn down the volume for the poignant final scene.

Aarya Sara Locker also stands out, in the role of Juliet’s nurse. Locker serves her mistress – and the role – loyally and well in a strong performance throughout. Her scenes with Meg Rodd Gunther were particularly warm, whether the two were conspiring, celebrating or grieving. Amy Loui, as Lady Capulet, brings strength and dignity to the part, showering her daughter with love and shielding Juliet from her father’s blows.

Weatherall indulges in some gender bending by giving the role of Mercutio to a woman. This Mercutio, played by Brooke Edwards, is a strident, in-your-face gal pal who wants to be more than just friends with Romeo and gropes him at every opportunity. Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech here becomes an overwrought drunken rant, but Edwards nails her death scene. Charlie Barron is as hot as he is hot tempered as Tybalt, displaying a taunting demeanor (and intriguing body art) in spite of his position as a junior officer in the Arab Legion.

Kevin Beyer exudes dignity and common sense to his role as Laurence, the British army chaplain with an impossible job. Aaron Orion Baker (Paris), Mark Kelley (Benvolio), Michael Perkins (a sergeant in the Arab Legion), Tyler Vickers (the governor of Jerusalem), David Wassilak (Romeo’s father) and B. Weller (Juliet’s father) complete the cast, with no weak links.

Michelle Friedman Siler accepted the challenge to design the costumes, and the result is mixed. At the party early in the play, Romeo and friends sport tuxedos and Venetian-style masks. At home, Romeo and his dad look as though they just dropped in from a performance of “A View from the Bridge.” At Juliet’s house, her father wears a traditional long robe while she and her mother wear ornate full-length dresses with high-flying head gear. Juliet’s nurse wears a tailored skirt and suit jacket.

Dunsai Dai’s set is simple and accommodates a variety of locations. Glenn Dunn designed the lights and Weatherall did the sound. Kudos to Lou Bird in his role as fight choreographer. This production of “Romeo and Juliet” is part of the Missouri History Museum’s Performing Arts Series, and the last offsite production for New Jewish Theatre, which moves into a new theater space in its old home, the Jewish Community Center.

Romeo and Juliet

WHO: The New Jewish Theatre

WHEN: Evening and matinee performances on Wednesdays, Thursdays and weekends through May 2

WHERE: E. Desmond Lee Auditorium at the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park

HOW MUCH: $22 to $34

MORE INFO: The History Museum’s box office at 314-361-9017 or www.newjewishtheatre.org