Romeo and Juliet

Folger Theatre’s Juliet Unfurled

Tybalt (Rex Daugherty, right) duels Mercutio (Brad Koed), with Benvolio (Aaron Bliden) looking on. Photo: Teresa Wood.

If you think you know Romeo and Juliet—whether Shakespeare’s or the countless adaptations on stage and screen—think again. Aaron Posner’s new production at the Folger Theatre is a revelation. “My primary goal is to help audiences experience the play as if for the very first time,” he says. Done and done.

Posner succeeds not by superimposing a far-fetched vision or interpretation. Rather, he digs so thoroughly into the play’s text, and context, that even minor characters have new depth.

In Posner’s hands, the transformation of Juliet, played to plucky and then stirring effect by Erin Weaver, is the most profound. Weaver’s Juliet develops slowly, from a bookish, slightly willful girl in glasses and a fatigue jacket to a powerful woman who lets nothing stand in her way. Weaver could not be further from a sweet young thing batted about by passion or limited by the strictures of her time.

Weaver’s strength is nowhere more pronounced than immediately after Juliet learns Romeo has been banished and seeks the help of Friar Lawrence, a father figure played with great feeling by Eric Hissom. In a scene that typically shows a helpless girl guided—even manipulated—by a bit-too-crafty adult, here Juliet is fully in charge.

The moment Juliet’s suitor Paris leaves her alone with the friar, Weaver barks “O shut the door!” with such ferocity and disdain that I had to look up the line to make sure it’s really in the play; it was as if I’d never heard it before. Next she demands that the friar come up with a plan: “Be not so long to speak,” she growls, “I long to die.” This is no pathetic whimper or idle threat; it’s a chilling promise that brings a look of sheer terror to Hissom’s face. It is the friar who scrambles to follow Juliet’s direction, not the reverse.

Such fresh insight heightens the intensity of the entire play, with text streamlined by Posner to focus even more relentlessly on his characters and the pain they have wrought. By the time Romeo has inadvertently killed Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, each character is drawn in stark relief, from the enraged Lady Capulet (Shannon Koob) to the sobbing Lady Montague (Michele Osherow) and the Prince—played by Hissom not as an official merely struggling to restore order, but as a man genuinely horrified by the escalation of violence under his watch.

In the midst of this tableau, Aaron Bliden as Benvolio brings new pathos to a character who normally serves as a mere sidekick and vehicle for explaining to the prince how a street fight left two men dead. Bliden’s palpable shock and dismay make the recounting of the murders even more affecting than the murders themselves.

Only in the character of Lord Capulet, the explosive Brian Dykstra, does Posner seem to go a bit beyond the pale, making Juliet’s father downright abusive as well as controlling. Dykstra shows signs of being a thug throughout the play until unleashing terrible fury on not only Juliet but also his wife and the nurse. Still, this portrayal succeeds: There’s no doubt Juliet has no options, validating her fierce determination to escape her parents’ grip. 

But let’s not forget romance. Juliet and Romeo—the charmingly boyish Michael Goldsmith—spark plenty of playful passion. And clearly opposites attract. Weaver’s drive is balanced by Goldsmith’s dreaminess; he’s every bit a fool for love.

Their difference is most evident when each falls into the throes of despair. While Juliet wills herself to buck up every time she seems ready to fall apart, Romeo is dissolved in a blubbering puddle until Juliet’s nurse (played with warmth and gusto by Sherri Edelen) practically drags him to his feet with the command, “Stand up, stand up; stand, and you be a man.”

The performances play out on Meghan Reham’s spare set, simply framing the scenes and allowing plenty of room for actors to flex their physical and emotional muscles. Time and place are only suggested by backlit screenshots of Verona’s streets and a tawny full moon. Laree Lentz’s costumes invite free association as well, with Elizabethan-era lace and knickers bridging the centuries with modern accents like tank tops and leather boots. Perhaps most evocative is the music by Carla Kihlstedt, setting the tone for each scene with cheerful flutes, scratchy violins, and finally a ponderous drumbeat that portends the tragic end.

This final scene, too, belongs to Weaver, in a performance audiences won’t forget.

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.