Review: Theatre UCF re-imagines Romeo and Juliet in Prohibition Era America

Theatre UCF’s “Romeo & Juliet” is a brilliantly acted and expertly staged play that suffers from worrisome choices, reflecting the state of our university’s theater department.

Set in a “1930’s metropolis”, this re-imagination of British playwright William Shakespeare’s classic tale keeps all recognized plot aspects in place. The rivalry between the Montagues and Capulets, the intervention of a religious figure with mock poison and the famous iconic balcony scene all remain untouched.

Peppered into the story are dance numbers set in a speakeasy, tons of alcohol and explicit gestures that sometimes distract from Shakespeare’s deft sexual innuendos. These perhaps act as a means of relating to a college audience and encouraging students to show up. In Act I Scene I, Capulet family servant Sampson circles around the idea of having sex with the Montague women after attacking the Montague men, with sophomore Scott Haupt thrusting his hips into the audience within mere minutes of the play’s start.

This is one of the tamer moves and successfully enhances Shakespeare’s humor for those who might have missed it during their high school reading.

The scenic design speaks of a budget well spent. I often found myself fully immersed in the story as told between both parts of the stage: the lower half, representing the Capulet ball, the street where the Montagues drunkenly encourage Romeo to pursue Juliet and a bar frequented by Romeo, and the upper half acting as Juliet’s bedroom and the Capulet home.

Sophomore Joseph Herr and freshman Mandi Lee as Lord and Lady Capulet, respectively, shone during the performance’s second half. Herr’s angry tirade to his disobedient daughter shook the audience silent.

Director Belinda Boyd’s casting of senior Joshua Goodridge, a black actor, in the titular role of Romeo is commendable. Goodrige’s emotive Romeo captures the character’s inner conflict and dramatic disposition with precision.

In fact, Boyd made a number of bold choices.

A black Romeo and Lord Montague, played by Stelson Telfort, sets a black family at the crux of Britain’s most iconic play. In another daring move, the peacemaking Benvolio is played by giddy junior Sami Cunningham. The casting of a female actor in a historically male role is both a sign of the times and a reversal of the boy player trend in pre-1661 English theater.

The effervescent and talented junior Waneka Leary plays Nurse, Juliet’s confidant and the Capulet family helper.

For Boyd, a black director, to award a role of subservience with no proper given name and a limited backstory to the only black woman on the official cast is already risky.

The embers, as it turned out, gave way to a suffocating fire.

Leary was directed as a Mammy archetype, prone to sassy reactions with a Southern affectation that made the majority-white audience howl with laughter. She appeared visibly shocked and humbled when she bowed to the second-loudest cheers from the audience (the loudest were awarded to sophomore Isabella DeChard for her surprisingly adept Juliet).

Leary was embraced and applauded by the mixed-age crowd for providing the night’s minstrel comic relief, but she should not be blamed for the position she was put in.

It must be hard thriving within the confines of a traditionalist department that overwhelmingly favors white plays, actors and roles. Theatre UCF’s previous season included the plays “The World Goes ‘Round,” “Clybourne Park” and “Cloud 9”, all white plays. The current season includes “Puddin’ and the Grumble” and “Oklahoma!”.

Despite the implications of Leary’s portrayal, she’s at least truly funny.