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Theater review: It's easy to heart this 'R&J' riff

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Director Kevin Rich says in the program for “I Heart Juliet,” which opened at the 40th Illinois Shakespeare Festival last weekend, “Adapting our classics for a contemporary audience is a way to keep them alive.”

And boy, oh, boy, “alive” is the perfect word to describe the Q Brothers Collective's commissioned riff on the beloved “story of ... woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” 

The language is still heightened and in verse, but it’s gloriously contemporary. The familiar cadence of iambic pentameter is no more, with the pulsating “in your face” rhythm of hip hop rules.

The scenic design by Joe C. Klug with its spectacular graffiti style painting, and the techno-rock concert-inspired lighting by Dan Ozminkowski, cue the audience right away that “I Heart Juliet” is not going to be your grandmother's Shakespeare.

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Ten actors play multiple roles, where the basic components of the story of the star-crossed lovers still holds true.

There is an ancient feud between the Capulets and the “Montes." Romeo and Juliet meet at a party, fall in love, get married. Romeo kills Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in revenge for Mercutio’s death.

Romeo is banished. Juliet takes poison that makes her appear dead. Romeo misses the message about the ruse, and kills himself before she wakes up.

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In this alternative universe, the Capulets appear to be snobs from the Upper East Side who play golf and swill champagne, while the Montes have thick Brooklyn accents. There aren’t duels, there are dance-offs.

It’s difficult to single out individual actors in such a quintessentially ensemble piece like this, because each artist on stage is an integral part of the entire exhilarating experience.

Suffice it to say that Jesse Bhamrah, Joe Bianco, Emily Wold, Susie Parr, Mehry Eslaminia, Jose Nateras, Mark Tyler Miller, Chris Vizurraga, Christian Strange, Christian Frieden, and Madeline Calais all deserve standing ovations and kudos for making what is revered and familiar riveting, rocking, and re-defined.

Weiss is a freelance writer who reviews plays for The Pantagraph


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