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UCI Drama’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’: A Social Commentary on the Hamartia of Dichotomous Thinking and Impetuous Judgment in Contemporary Society

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UCI Drama performed its rendition of William Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by Andrew Borba, at the Irvine Barclay Theatre from Nov. 10-13. 

For centuries, the tragic tale of star-crossed lovers “Romeo and Juliet” has been one of the most significant pieces in English literature. Those who may not be familiar with the full plot are still aware of the demise that befalls the protagonists because of their forbidden love. As a result, some might dismiss this play as solely an “incredibly unrealistic” depiction of impulsive teenage love. 

However, UCI Drama’s performance of “Romeo and Juliet” has demonstrated it is not as far-fetched as one might think. While maintaining the integrity of the source material and implementing modern elements, the cast and crew of this production offered an insightful approach to a commonly misconstrued text. 

Contrary to the garish set designs one might witness at a Shakespeare play, UCI Drama’s stage  was frankly simple. Throughout the play, the set design stayed relatively the same. Its main defining feature was a set of stairs that led to a platform extending off both wings. On it, a steel pipe was covered by a white ledge containing various foliage, though it was still exposed. 

The Director’s Note on the program explained how the pipe was obvious to the naked eye “to visually remind the audience that the play is happening right now.” In an exclusive interview with Borba, he further elaborated on his artistic vision.

“If you took an Elizabethan stage and flattened it, and abstracted it a little bit, that’s the bones of the set we have,” he said. 

Certainly making use of the theater’s perimeter, the actors would enter and exit either side of the house causing an immersive experience. 

“These plays were written to be on thrust stages and out of the middle of the audience,” Borba said. “So, we pushed it as far forward as we could.” 

Photo by Paul R. Kennedy

Romeo (Timothy Frangos) was first introduced to the audience as he sauntered onto the stage walking from house left wallowing from unrequited love. Amusingly, Frangos depicted Romeo’s dilemma with a shrieking weep. Contrary to other adaptations that have conveyed the male protagonist with a brooding temperament, Frangos unabashedly leaned into Romeo’s sensitivity. On the other hand, Juliet (Heather Lee Echeverria) exhibited a fierce determination in her actions and did not waste time crying at the drop of a pin. 

Essentially, both characters showcased traits that are stereotypically considered feminine or masculine. Romeo was not just strong and Juliet was not just emotional — they were multi-faceted. 

This is exactly what Shakespeare was commenting on in the language of the text and what Borba wanted to highlight. In the same interview with Borba, the topic of gender norms was brought up. He said, “both those characters embrace both of those [qualities] and they don’t fit in the world of Verona, and that’s the tragedy.” 

Although the suicide of two young people is what constitutes this play as a tragedy, the choice of unforgiveness and bitterness from the Montagues and Capulets is just as tragic. Their lust for political superiority prevented unity and resulted in unnecessary deaths. As Borba said, “they’re separate, but they’re nearly indistinguishable.”

The matters laid out in the play eerily reflect this nation’s current and constant issue of partisan feud. Recently, the dispute between certain political issues is witnessing a down surge in respectful conversations and an upsurge in radical behavior. The characters of 400 years ago aren’t as dissimilar to ourselves as we once perceived. 

“What I think this play is kind of exposing is it’s an indictment of thinking in a binary way — in a bipartisan way,” Borba said. “Anytime anyone gets too strict on a particular point of view, something bad’s going to happen.” 

In fact, the refusal of the Montagues and Capulets to understand each other’s stance demonstrated their immaturity. Romeo and Juliet mostly receive the brunt of judgment from critics, but the adults in the play constantly made hasty decisions that negatively affected the teens. 

Photo by Paul R. Kennedy

While some choices were made with good intentions — such as when Friar Lawrence married the lovers — the impulse for instant satisfaction caused irrevocable consequences. Romeo and Juliet may have been reckless, but they were merely emulating what they were taught. They are a product of their environment.

Rash decision-making can negatively affect those around you. As seen when the COVID-19  pandemic first hit, people were rushing to stores to buy an inordinate amount of toilet paper, causing a struggle for some to even find one pack. This selfish behavior impairs judgment, and causes a lack of compassion for the needs of others, a point Shakespeare and Borba found crucial to accentuate. 

UCI’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” amplified the theme of fluidity that is not frequently discussed in regard to this play. Perhaps the media’s glorification of its romance trope prevented people from understanding Shakespeare’s multiple messages, or people simply chose to ignore them.

When asked what he hoped the audience would take away from the show, Borba was initially coy in his answer. 

“I try not to prescribe what the audience should take away,” he said. Yet later, he continues with, “I want the audience to go forth and talk about it” — mirroring the concluding words from the Chorus (Anina Baker).

After so many years, “Romeo and Juliet” is just as relevant now as it was back then. Even so, will a catastrophic event have to occur for a resolution to ensue? One can only hope not, but a collective awareness seems like the right way to start. 

Julissa Ramirez is an Arts & Entertainment Intern for the fall 2022 quarter. She can be reached at julisscr@uci.edu.