WASHINGTON — A bitter presidential campaign season is almost over.
But who needs Republicans and Democrats when you have the Montagues and Capulets?
“Look at Republican vs. Democrat. You couldn’t ask for two sides more angry at each other,” actor Andrew Veenstra told WTOP. “We need to take a minute to step back, step outside yourself and listen. You don’t have to agree … but just the common courtesy and respect to listen to somebody else is the start of change. I feel that’s something that applies not just to this play, but in general.”
“Everybody knows this story, but our goal is that people will live in our world and, even though they know what’s happening at the end, they’ll hope that maybe something’s changed,” Veenstra said.
These deep divides are at the heart of William Shakespeare’s classic 1594 play, set in Verona, Italy, where young lovers Romeo (Veenstra) and Juliet (Ayana Workman) fall in love despite the violent, tribal mindset between their respective families and sworn enemies, the Montagues and Capulets.
While the themes are universal, the prose itself is infinitely poetic.
“There’s a quote that someone told me: Shakespeare always wins,” Workman said. “No matter how many times you’ve been working on this play or have revisited it at different points in your life, you will always learn something new. His words — we know it as a theory, but saying them every night — they are so deep. Every time I say them, I discover something new and it gets me in a different way.”
While the language is inherently challenging, it’s so layered that it provides a safety net on stage.
“Even sometimes when you make a mistake, it’s actually your best friend,” Veenstra said. “You’ll make a mistake and in the recovery of it, you’ll go, ‘Oh wow, I had no idea!’ I mean, with Shakespeare, he invented thousands of phrases and words in the course of his writings and life that are now so commonplace. He was the first person ever to say ‘eyeball.’ He was the first to ever put that together.”
Do these starry-eyed actors remember the first time they “eyeballed” the play?
“I very distinctly remember,” Veenstra said. “I was a freshman and we actually did it for the course of a week. We read it my English class. Then at the end of that, we watched the [Franco] Zeffirelli film.”
Workman says her first encounter was at an even younger age.
“I’ve been living with it a long time,” Workman said. “The first time I was introduced to the story was as a kid. My mom was a dance teacher and she played the ballet music for me. I danced to it in class and loved the music and it became a part of my life, this epic love story, and I’ve seen all the movies.”
In addition to Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey in Zeffirelli’s “Romeo & Juliet” (1968) or Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” (1996), Veenstra and Workman say their actual first encounter with the story was Robert Wise’s movie musical “West Side Story” (1961).
“I remember seeing ‘West Side Story’ when I was younger and then being told it was ‘Romeo & Juliet,” Veenstra said with a laugh. “It’s kind of the same thing when you see ‘The Lion King’ and you realize that’s ‘Hamlet’ and you’re like, ‘Oh!’ Nothing’s original anymore, everyone pulls from Shakespeare!”
Such modern adaptations — turning Romeo & Juliet into Tony & Maria and evolving the Montagues & Capulets into the Sharks & Jets — help new generations relate to the centuries-old story.
“I think it made it relevant to people,” Workman said. “It was no longer ‘this Shakespeare story,’ but it became, ‘Oh, this is my backyard, I’m from this neighborhood, this is a normal girl and a normal guy falling in love and violence and death and romance and dance and music.’ It made it current and now.”
Similarly, the D.C. production is modernized with two rival factions in contemporary street clothes.
“The whole set is extremely red,” Workman said. “The director specifically said he wanted the set to breathe passion and violence and hate and love. So the set is specifically all red, and we are in modern dress. … We wanted it to be a story where you see us on stage and you see people you see everyday.”
This approach also helps the production reach all ages.
“We wanted to reach out to younger audiences,” Veenstra said. “We’re doing a lot of student shows. … Kids can come in and relate and feel, ‘Wow, I am Romeo in this way, I am Mercutio in this way, I am Juliet in this way,’ so that they can relate to it. That’s what Shakespeare did. He wrote for the people.”
Which brings us back to “We the People” and our heated battle of Republicans and Democrats.
“Given the state of our world right now, it’s very relatable, this notion of ‘us vs. them’ and not even entirely knowing the reason why,” Veenstra said. “It’s just this feud. Why are they fighting? It goes back centuries! They don’t even know anymore! … And it feels that way in our country a lot, too.”
Veenstra says art can help bridge those divides and knock down our political walls.
“If it’s race issues, gender issues, political affiliations, whatever it is, there’s a lot of hate right now,” he said. “This show is a reminder that hate has an outcome that isn’t good. Hopefully we don’t have to get to an outcome like that before we start to change. That’s why art is important, movies, plays, books, songs, because sometimes it can make you correct it before something like that happens.”
This isn’t some unrealistic, idealistic optimism, but rather a cautionary cry in a violent storm of reality.
“What’s sad about ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is that love doesn’t really conquer it,” Workman said of the two characters’ ultimate fate. “At the end of the day, the world wins and these two kids end up dead.”
This fatalistic outcome is baked right into Shakespeare’s original title.
“The full title is ‘The Tragedy of Romeo & Juliet,'” Veenstra said. “I don’t know that the tragedy is solely that they die. The tragedy is: Here are two people who are trying to choose love, trying not to be involved in this nonsense … but it consumes them. And that’s the tragedy — that innocence is lost.”
While the play ends tragically for its players, we can find hope by learning a lesson from their demise.
“That’s the epilogue to the show, that’s what they say, ‘How horrible that they die from love because of your hate,'” Veenstra said. “The prince at the end says, ‘A glooming peace this morning with it brings.’ While this horrible thing happened, maybe this is sadly what it took to finally make change.”
Montagues & Capulets? Sharks & Jets? Republicans & Democrats?
Shakespeare always wins.
Click here for ticket information. Listen to the full audio conversation and watch the video interview below: