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Beatles Meet Shakespeare at Tapestry

Story of “star-cross’d lovers” updated.

The new production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which Tapestry Theatre is presenting at the Nannie J. Lee Center, doesn’t have any young men in tights. It does have them in blue jeans, however — faded blue jeans with torn knees to be precise.

Director Peggy Jones has mounted Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy of “star-cross’d lovers” not in the Verona of 1600, but on the streets of an American city in the 1960s where the turmoil of the civil rights and anti-war movements make the animosity between the Capulets and Montagues feel positively modern.

Using Beatles music to establish both time and place, she brings on a cast sporting — in addition to torn jeans — tie-dyed tee shirts, headbands and an occasional U.S. Army uniform.

As evocative as the costumes designed by Susan Schulman are, however, it is the choice of music in Jones’ production that not only gets the concept across but makes it more than just another “updating” of one of the bard’s classics. After all, we’ve seen “The Taming of the Shrew” produced as if it was set in a western town teeming with cowboys, and a “Hamlet” done in silence. A few years ago Arlington’s Keegan Theatre put on a version of “Romeo and Juliet” set in Belfast instead of Verona.

Jones uses the updating of a classic to highlight the themes of the play that seem to her to be the most relevant to today’s audiences, and she hits a bulls’ eye with the use of later Beatles songs, such as “Helter Skelter,” which accompanies a fatal fight. The show ends to the last lyric of the last song on the Beatles’ last album: “in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

As effective as the concept is, the production hits a snag with its execution. Much of the cast seems uncomfortable on the stage at times and some major roles are in the hands of actors who lack either the training or the skills to handle the verse dialogue written by Shakespeare or the emotions of the key scenes. Most productions of “Romeo and Juliet” rise or fall on the quality of the performers in the two title roles. Here this production may not fall but it certainly falters with an energetic but undisciplined Alex Avila and a stiff Danielle Eure in the roles.

The company could also have benefited from more resources for set and costumes although the use of modern dress avoided the need for more traditional, and expensive, period costumes. Bob Ciccottelli’s set consists primarily of a central structure that rotated to be a castle or a bedroom wall or balcony for the famous “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” scene.

Limitations on resources or of performance skills, however, do not obscure the intention of director Jones as she draws clear connections between this 400-year-old play and the issues which still affect society today.

Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, available at www.PotomacStages.com. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.