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Romeo and Juliet Visit the Roaring '20s

Currently showing at Idaho Shakespeare Festival


Baz Luhrmann set it in Mexico City, with neon Catholic kitsch, swirling sand and drive-by violence. West Side Story set it in New York City's Puerto Rican ghetto, with finger-snapping, knife-wielding street gangs. And Idaho Shakespeare Festival set its rendition of Romeo and Juliet in 1920s Italy, with flappers and cane-twirling Gatsby-esque gents.

Shakespeare's tragic tale of two ill-fated teen lovers has cycled through so many pop culture renditions that its plot is familiar beyond the point of cliche. But that doesn't mean it's any less enjoyable to revisit, especially if its characters are plopped into another tumultuous era when "the mad blood is stirring."

In ISF Producing Artistic Director Charles Fee's program notes, he explains that "the feud of the Capulets and the Montagues must feel all encompassing, not just two households but part of a broader political conflict that the Prince is grappling with." So, he decided to set the play in an Italian city recovering from World War I, with Mussolini and the Fascist party on the rise.

But despite the crumbling set, the forboding atmosphere didn't take, partly because the actors were far too funny. J. Todd Adams played Mercutio like a more poetic Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. He used his floor-length coat to great effect, swooping through multiple personalities as he ribbed Romeo and swigged off bottles of hooch. Later, he swung on the stage's scaffolding with the ease of a gymnast, engaging Tybalt (played by Dan Lawrence) in a humorous, multi-tiered sword fight. That scene also highlighted the huffy hilarity of Juliet's Nurse, played with the right dash of raunchiness by Laurie Birmingham.

And Juliet, herself, was no delicate flower. Betsy Mugavero had all the sass and bouncing ringlets of a teenaged orphan Annie, coupled with a beauty that was more adorable than unattainable. When a loud plane rumbled over the outdoor amphitheater in the middle of Juliet's monologue, Mugavero cutely placed her head on her hands and waited for it to pass. The audience chuckled before erupting into applause.

Even Star Moxley's costumes placed more emphasis on frivolity than the plot's looming tragedy, with violet, dropped-waist flapper dresses, gold-embellished masks and sleek suits with undone collars. Apart from Tybalt's buttoned up, stiff black attire, the costuming underscored the performance's light-hearted tone. So much so that when the two lovers finally took their lives in the stuffy tomb, you almost expected them to be resurrected and gallop off the stage happily ever after.