Swordfighting and Facebooking: Too Weird to Work

By Haley Twist

“How do you present a play that is so language-based?” director James Vesce asks himself three nights before the opening of his newest play Romeo.Juliet. His answer? “A weird juxtaposition of people with swords who are Facebooking.”

That odd combination is at the root of Vesce’s production of Romeo.Juliet, an interpretation that battles to find its footing as it struggles to be the best of both worlds. UNC-Charlotte’s Department of Theatre debuted the technology-driven adaptation of William Shakespeare’s celebrated masterpiece April 12. With a title as well-known as this one, the debate is not the play’s relevancy, but the effectiveness of the modern twist on the classic.

While this two-hour production presents a colorful, up-to-date look into the lives of the star-crossed lovers, emphasizing technology and consisting of stellar student acting, Vesce’s juxtaposition appears jumbled and misplaced at times.

Vesce, Chair of the Department of Theatre at UNC-Charlotte, dissects Shakespeare’s words as he structures Romeo.Juliet, determining the human elements that transcend time and place while thinking about how they relate to modern times.

“If Shakespeare were writing today he’d be writing for The Big Bang Theory or Will & Grace,” said Vesce, emphasizing the playwright’s knack for hitting human emotion and desire spot-on. “It’s sitcom television in our time.”

Deciding to modernize the love story, Vesce updates much of the production. Mini-dresses and skinny jeans replaces Victorian garb, a rave replaces a ball, Skype replaces messengers, and Facebook replaces daydreams. But in the midst of all the contemporary touches, a few holes are easy to see.

As the production begins, fog fills the Anne R. Belk Theater and the cast slowly emerges onstage. Electronic music begins to play, one of the strong suits of the production, and the actors engage in a short dance, contextually out-of-place.

The stage clears and audiences see Romeo in front of an iPad, lusting for Rosaline as he gazes longingly at her Facebook profile picture and poetically expresses his love for her.

Much like Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet, Romeo.Juliet stays in Shakespeare’s original dialogue, a commendable ambition from the cast, who never so much as stutter throughout the opening night.

From there the production progresses, featuring more beautiful Shakespeare delivered from the cast, intense dance music and plenty of action as the actors frequently travel off stage, running up and down the aisles with a blissful Juliet, played by Gina Herrera, even appearing above the audience during a fantastic adaptation of the famous balcony scene.

But throughout the performance, it’s easy to get distracted by the inconsistency. The climax of the production, a fight between the Montagues and the Capulets, was well-executed, as a professional fight choreographer, Richard Ryan, designed the sequence. But the use of swords was confusing while the scenes beforehand consisted of Skype, Facebook and cell phone usage. The inconsistency makes the iPads, phones and laptops appear less like modern touches and more like anachronisms.

While the production showcased young talent at UNC Charlotte, the discrepancies were distracting, making the modern touches seem unbalanced, something that Vesce agrees is an obstacle when incorporating technology into live classic theater.

“It’s about finding the balance, and I don’t think anyone’s found the balance quite yet.”

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