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Jobsite lands ‘Romeo & Juliet’ in the 1980s

Bill DeYoung

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Darius Autry and Kayla Witoshynsky have the title roles in Jobsite's "Romeo & Juliet," set in the 1980s. "In Shakespeare’s day," director David Jenkins says, "Shakespeare was not setting things in the period. In plays that were set hundreds of years prior, they still wore modern dress. So why would we dress like them now?" Photos: James Zambon Photography.

Shakespeare’s star-crossed teen lovers are together again in the Jobsite Theater production of Romeo & Juliet, opening Friday in Tampa’s Straz Center complex.

A five-time finalist for the NEA Shakespeare in American Communities Award, Jobsite made its bones on innovative Shakespearean adaptations. This one is no different – through the use of period music, sets and costumes, the timeless tragedy unfolds in the American 1980s.

“We take this very seriously,” points out David Jenkins, Jobsite artistic director. “Shakespeare’s got to be set somewhere. Why would we bother doing all these stories with everybody in frilly collars?”

When considering how to adapt Romeo & Juliet, Jenkins explains, he was struck by the thought that its central issue – a terrible conflict between opposing sides – is still relevant today.

A little too relevant, perhaps. “Setting it in the modern world, I thought, was going to be too on-the-nose for people,” he says. “We’re so divided right now that even pointing that out onstage is going to divide people.

“But there’s this weird move you can pull, as an artist: invoking nostalgia. In doing that, people get enough distance from it where they’re more receptive to what you’re really getting at – ‘oh, that’s about the ‘80s’ – and they’re more open to perhaps getting what you’re aiming for. Rather than if I had come at it with a sledgehammer and made it about Democrats and Republicans, or Q-Anon and BLM.”

Rest assured that the Bard’s flowing language remains as written. Jenkins and his 13-member cast have not turned Romeo & Juliet into something coldly contemporary.

“If you’re going to do that, why do Shakespeare?” Jenkins says. “If you want to do Ten Things I Hate About You instead of Taming of the Shrew, do Ten Things I Hate About You. If you want to adapt something into She’s All That, go right ahead. We do Shakespeare and we’re not going to mess with it.”

The play’s three-hours-plus running time has been judiciously trimmed, to adjust for the modern audience’s powers of endurance – especially since masks are still required for all visitors to the theater – and several servant characters have been combined for a slightly smoother flow.

You might notice it’s set in the ‘80s. Then again, you might not.

“We didn’t want to make a joke out of this by having everybody with Great Wall of China hair, but there are lines and colors and an aesthetic to the costumes, without making it cheesy or goofy. We have a visual palette, in terms of the things that are on set, and the way people are dressed, and with the way the music sounds.”

The original score is by longtime Jobsite collaborator Jeremy Douglass.

Back in the 16th Century, when Shakespeare was the hot young playwright on the block, all stage roles were played by men. In David Jenkins’ Romeo & Juliet, there’s a bit of gender-switching going on, too.

David Warner has the (traditionally female) role of Nurse, while Katrina Stevenson is cast as Juliet’s (male) cousin Tybalt.

“Shakespeare does this really great trick,” Jenkins explains, “in that in the first half of Romeo & Juliet you’re dealing with a comedy. We’re laughing along with Nurse, and we’re laughing along with Mercutio. We’re laughing at all the boob and wiener jokes. You want to laugh at a guy in a caftan, fine, go ahead.

“And then, all of a sudden, we get smacked in the gut. We get hit with the tragedy of the thing – and the character of Nurse is kind of comic … until it’s not.”

Romeo & Juliet begins with preview performances Wednesday and Thursday. All details and tickets here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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