Playwright: William Shakespeare. At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand. Phone: 312-595-5600; $44-$75. Runs through: Nov. 21
Kids! What's the matter with kids today? If this lyric crosses your mind in the course of Shakes-at-the-Pier's vigorous interpretation of Western literature's greatest love story, you're not alone. Australian director Gale Edwards' concept encompasses an eclectic universe replete with iconic American archetypes: Juliet garbed in fluffy prom-dresses, Romeo in disco-glam Qiana, and the warring gangs done up in Grease/Happy Days/West Side Story drag ( rapiers and daggers notwithstanding ) leading us to anticipate Bronx accents instead of iambic pentameter. Lady Capulet is girdled in Mad Men-'60s couture, her husband lounges in a kind of Elizabethan smoking jacket, Nurse wears castoff Dior and professoroops, FriarLaurence putters about in his chemistry lab. Oh, and did I mention that this is not a comedy?
And therein lies the flaw in Edwards' avowed quest for "physicality." You can't get much more physical than a pack of adolescent males, especially in a Veronese community where freely-shared passions are so universally tolerated that when the elderly Lord Capulet calls for a sword in order to join in a street fracas, someone actually gives him one, prompting a mano-a-mano struggle with the likewise aged Montague paterfamilias. But when fathers brawl like barroom bullies, youngsters play amid abandoned warehouses and teenage girls make out with boys at first sight, who but our 14-year-old heroine is shocked when the menfolk die early and violent deaths? And weflushed with Edwards' images of hot blood stirred in thrilling vengeance for long-forgotten wrongswhat hope can WE muster for a pair of puppy-lovers' escape from this culture of stifling machismo?
Live fast, die young, leave a pretty corpsethis production may be the perfect vehicle for introducing young people to the ( ahem ) classics. Joy Farmer-Clary emotes in full estrogenic frenzy, echoed by Ora Jones' outspoken Nurse. John Judd and Judy Blue lend Mr. and Mrs. Capulet a refreshing depth, as does David Lively to Fr. Laurence, who emerges as a welcome voice of reason. But it's the "lads" who dominate the action, thanks to Rick Sordelet's ingenious combat choreography, with Ariel Shafir's Mercutio and Steve Haggard's Benvolio easily reducing Jeff Lillico's Romeo to a boy-band stripling. Top honors, however, are due Barbara Robertson, whose vocal instruction integrates impeccable phrasing and enunciation so craftily into the operatic/athletic spectacle that we hardly notice that we're watchingshhhhh!Shakespeare.