In ACT's production of Romeo + Juliet, Shakespeare's loveliest tale of woe, Romeo meets Juliet while she's doing the electric slide. I nearly stood up and walked out of the theater. The electric slide? Really, director John Langs?
But then I realized that I was failing to appreciate one of the play's lessons: Love finds you wherever you are, whatever you're doing. Who was I to paternalistically impose my judgment on a dance beloved by high schoolers? Anyway, the dance is the least important detail in this otherwise thrilling production.
Langs cast deaf actors to play Romeo and Friar Lawrence, and he incorporated American Sign Language into the script. Romeo, played by Joshua Castille, signs to other characters and they sign back. Sometimes an interpreter serves as interlocutor. Other times, a group of actors voices Romeo's lines, popcorn-reading style. Castille also yells out lines during moments of emotional stress, which is enormously affecting.
Working with sign master and ASL translator Ellie Savidge, Langs also added scenes, namely one where Juliet learns to sign a few key phrases in ASL. Langs and Savidge also added jokes to acknowledge Romeo's deafness. At one point, Benvolio, played by Chip Sherman, shouts at a distance for Romeo's attention. In response, Mercutio, played by Darragh Kennan, gives him an incredulous look and simply says, "He's deaf." The crowd laughed.
All of this was more than a victory for an underrepresented community in theater. Having other actors literally voice Romeo's lines while he signs embodies the central theme of the universality of love. It also compounds the tragedy of Romeo's death. Watching him die is like watching the whole town die.
The production design is all over the place. Handguns and rapiers. Moody pink and purple lights. Costumes ripped straight out of Michael Jackson's Thriller. Music sourced from the mid-aughts. But everything more or less reads "contemporary street scene in a police state." The coolest thing is actors balletically wheeling three massive chain-link fences around the stage, symbolizing the many kinds of separation in the play.
Castille plays Romeo as a frantic, flailing, emo teen, which is exactly what you want to see. His striking stare melts into a softly amorous gaze every time he looks at Juliet.
Howie Seago plays Friar Lawrence as a calm, cool, in-control father figure to Romeo, providing a welcome anchor of sanity in an otherwise hectic world.
Gabriella O'Fallon, who plays Juliet, is now officially a rising star in Seattle theater; her portrayal ought to add lift and luminosity to her career. You can play Juliet about a hundred different ways. O'Fallon strikes a 70/30 split between peppy student-council president and inconsolable sad girl. Her incredible vocal range allows her to sink into deeper, smokier, more adult tones, but also to pop up into the bright registers of teen innocence. She perfectly expresses Juliet's not-a-girl-not-yet-a-woman-ness, to loosely quote poet Britney Spears.
Of all the actors, Reginald A. Jackson has the greatest command of Shakespeare's language. Jackson turns in the most hilarious Lord Capulet I've ever seen, and he steals the show whenever he's onstage.