Baltimore Performance Kitchen's production of Romeo and Juliet begins like many other summertime Shakespeare productions: outdoors. That's where the comparisons to stock summer Shakespeare end. The entire audience-roughly 60 people-mill about inside the artists-run Area 405 gallery/performance space in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District when Aldo Pantoja, a co-founding Single Carrot Theatre member and Mercutio here, asks everybody to follow him. Wearing jeans and a red Manchester United T-shirt and dangling a skateboard from one hand, he leads everyone into an adjacent alley, where he steps onto a concrete pillar for a few pre-production remarks. Cellphones? Off, but feel free to take pictures-and if you share them on Twitter, use #BaltPerfKitchen. (But, please, no video.) He then arranges everybody into a semicircle for the play's presumable start-just as soon as he filled out the cast.
For every production, three volunteers are needed: for Lady Montague and the apothecary, who have a few lines, and the non-speaking fair Rosaline. While the giggling volunteers are ushered down the alley for some quick stage directions, Pantoja breaks the audience into two groups. In one, a cast member provides a brief discussion of the play. In another, a cast member talks about the surrounding area. On opening night, Kevin Griffin Moreno, who plays Juliet's father, Lord Capulet, gives a brief history of the Area 405 building-which used to be a brewery, then a factory-and the neighborhood and its residents. Pantoja soon asks for everybody's attention again and delivers the play's opening refrain. He finishes, offers a devilish grin, and announces, "Spoiler alert, they kill themselves."
And with that, director Buck Jabaily, #BaltPerfKitchen's founder, addresses the elephant in the room: Why do this staple of high school English classes? It's the "Apache" breakbeat of storylines-even if you don't know you know it, you know it-making any production less about the usual acting, staging, and production, and all about how it's treated.
Jabaily and his R&J cast and crew take a speculative fiction route. Juliet (Annie Unger) and the Capulets in this production are from 1913; they're the affluent white owners of the brewery. Romeo (spoken-word force of nature Michelle Antoinette Nelson) and the Montagues hail from 2013; they're the more working-class, multiethnic residents of Station North today. And, yes, Romeo is a woman. The production moves from outside and around the building into its courtyard. In the courtyard a conventional seating arrangement awaits, but twice during the play it's rearranged to accommodate the shifting stage areas. It ends with chairs circling the star-crossed lovers' tragic end.
The stage setup reinforces the production's sneaky goal. It's asking us to take a good look at each other. R&J is the tale of overpowering love, and productions tend to spotlight the preciousness of intense emotions. This production tries to dissect what's taken as the story's given: that the Capulets and Montagues hate each other with homicidal rage.
This approach is disarmingly daring, and it's why the production draws the audience into its universe from the very start. Why are the Capulets and Montagues mortal enemies? Is it racial? Is it class? Is it because they look different and talk different and dress different? Or is it just because that's what they do and how they define themselves? In such visceral emotions, this production suggests, reside the play's resonant staying power. R&J remains timelessly relevant not because we all have memories of teenage love trapped in memory's amber; it's because irrational hate walks down the street every day.
Fortunately, the production also has a great time with its mashup approach. Mercutio remains one of Shakespeare's most endearing creations, and here Pantoja gets to deliver the fabulous Queen Mab speech holding a forty wrapped in a plastic bag after driving up to the front of Area 405 in a car with Romeo and Benvolio (a superb Dustin Morris) while Rye Rye's "Shake It to the Ground" bumps from the car stereo. Scene-stealer Jessica Garrett has a ball as Juliet's nurse, turning the character into a saucy wit in the play's sprightly first half, during which time the production leads the audience around the building. Romeo and Juliet first spy each and eye-flirt while darting in and out among the audience, who become guests at Lord Capulet's party, before Tybalt and Mercutio meet their ends and the whole play nosedives into tragedy.
And what of Juliet and her Romeo? Unger at first seems timid, but as her Juliet ripens into a verbally adroit schemer, it appears she was merely playing the young maiden as coy early on. And Nelson, pretty much making her acting debut, energetically makes a black female Romeo feel like a natural fit. Nelson's poetry doesn't adhere to the strict meters and cadences of Shakespeare, but her gift of gab finds its own rhythm for the pentameter's groove, and her casual stage presence really charges her scenes with Juliet and Mercutio and Benvolio. It's easy to forget that the characters are teens, and, ever since Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 film adaptation, popular versions have accommodated that with young casts. Not saying the cast here is old, but they find another way: They deliver Shakespeare with the impudent verve of young people, whether adding an extra dose of lewd to the Bard's bawdiness or finding the right sort of deadpan tone for the cutting insults.
It's a good time and another sly way the production focuses this shopworn story in the here and now. Romeo, Juliet, Mercutio, Benvolio-they're kids who spend their time acting the fool the way kids do, ensuring that the play foolishly ends the way far too many Baltimore stories do. Words are exchanged between people who dislike each other just 'cause, one dumb act of violence begets another, and soon enough we're all sitting around, watching, as a few more dead bodies pile up on the concrete.
Baltimore Performance Kitchen presents Romeo and Juliet at Area 405 through June 30. More for information, visit performancekitchen.org.