By Victoria L. Dammer

I am an aficionado of unadulterated Shakespeare. However, I was intrigued when invited to review the National Asian American Theatre Company’s (NAATCO) presentation of Romeo and Juliet, written in a modern verse translation by award-winning Hansol Jung.

Many consider Romeo and Juliet one of the greatest tragedies, where rivalry and love take twists and turns. Yet, Jung’s version opens as a comedy, with the audience laughing at every line, knowing the sad outcome of the tale as the play begins. This version presents music, singing, physicality, and pleasures to the eye and ear with modern clothing, rapping, a disco ball, and actors wearing animal head costumes and knight helmets, to mention a few. Every character in this performance is complex, like the original.

Traditional characters appear on stage who were in Shakespeare’s original play, like Mercutio (Jose Gamo), Benvolio (Zion Jang), Friar Lawrence (Purva Bedi), and Tybalt (Rob Kellogg), playing the tuba, and drums, even holding large flashlights to illuminate the actors on stage. Romeo (Major Curda) strums his guitar and sings to the audience; Juliet (Dorcas Leung) strolls on stage in T-Rex fluffy slippers and jeans. This presentation was captivating, and the audience connected with the performers immediately.

When Romeo serenades Juliet, the lovers are on the path to destiny, and Curda’s voice and ethereal smile are spellbinding. Likewise, Leung, with a gilded birdcage on her head, has an enchanting voice. There is a lot of symbolism in the choice of headpieces, and the instrumentation adds a new verve to this 16th-century masterpiece.

What fascinates lovers of authenticity is that lines from the original Shakespeare play are dispersed throughout this new translation. For example, Romeo speaks, “What light through yonder window breaks?” part of one of the most famous soliloquies ever written. Juliet also reminds us of one of her most famous lines as she cries, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?… in Act II, scene 2. Nevertheless, by including these two lines and others, Jung acknowledges that some well-loved lines can never be forgotten or omitted from powerful stories.

Jung’s interpretation doesn’t challenge the work of Shakespeare’s classic, but enhances it by bringing her version to a new audience, and the final standing ovation was proof of her success.

NAATCO, in partnership with Two River Theater, presents ROMEO AND JULIET by William Shakespeare in a modern verse translation by Hansol Jung, directed by Hansol Jung & Dustin Wills, with original music by Brian Quijada. Starring Purva Bedi, Major Curda, Jose Gamo, Brian Lee Huynh, Zion Jang, Mia Katigbak, Rob Kellogg, Dorcas Leung, and Daniel Liu.

Scenic design by Junghyun Georgia Lee; Costume Design Mariko Ohigashi; Lighting Design by Joey Moro; Sound Design by Megumi Katayama; Dramaturgy by Aaron Malkin; Fight Direction by Rick Sordelet; Music Direction Nygel D. Robinson; Production Stage Management by Hannah Woodward; Assistant Stage Manager Kevin Jinghong Zhu; Production Management by Lindsay Child; Technical Director Steven Brenman; Casting by Zee Casting; Press by David Gersten and Associates; Graphic design by Kate Katigbak.

Romeo and Juliet is now playing at the Lynn F. Angelson Theater, 136 East 13th Street, New York, through June 3rd. Running time is 2 hours, 35 minutes, with a 10-minute intermission.