As I watched the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of “Romeo et Juliette” at the N.Y. City Center, its many fight scenes between members of the Capulet and Montague families reminded me of similarly-staged scenes in the musical “West Side Story.” After all, the latter is but a ‘re-telling’ of the former. However, at a certain point in “Romeo et Juliette,” the problem dawned on me that Jean-Christophe Maillot’s choreography dwelt almost exclusively on the tribulations and exuberances of the story’s young people. In other words, this production reduces the story to nothing more than a series of artfully choreographed brawls between angsty teenagers interspersed with scenes of the titular characters madly pining for each other.
At the beginning of the show’s very cinematic-looking opening credits (perhaps my favorite part of the whole production), there is an image of a building that looks as if it might have been taken straight from a town in medieval Italy where Shakespeare’s original play is set. However, we see more of this connection to the source material in the production itself. The scenery in this version is an all-white design with giant sliding walls and a winding staircase leading to nowhere, along with scattered furniture that looks as if it was taken directly from an Ikea showroom. Perhaps by using such an abstract display the show is trying to highlight the universality of the story’s themes of love and conflict, which are not unique to a medieval Italian setting.
In this respect, the production succeeds very well. Nevertheless, all compelling stories, such as Shakespeare’s original “Rome and Juliet” are a mix of the universal and the particular.
The main flaw of “Romeo et Juliette” is that it takes too much of a ‘big-picture’ view of its subject matter while ignoring the relevant particulars (i.e. setting) which make its source material so unique. After all, there is a reason why Shakespeare titled it “Romeo and Juliet” and not “Scenes of Young People Fighting While Two of Them Experience Doomed Love.”
The effect here is similar to that of the “Peanuts” cartoons where we always see the same characters but never any of their parents (or any other adults for that matter). By removing the particular context of competing families in a medieval Italian town, “Romeo et Juliette” ultimately dooms itself by removing the cause of its story’s path, reducing it to nothing more than young people fighting in an abstract vacuum devoid of any meaningful connection to time and place.
Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Romeo et Juliette” was performed at the N.Y. City Center from February 13 – 16.