Review: 'Romeo and Juliet' is given fresh angle at American Players Theatre

Posted August 23, 2023


By Gwendolyn Rice, Isthmus | August 23, 2023

William Shakespeare’s classic tale of romance and tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, has fascinated audiences for more than four centuries. It has also inspired artists to translate the story into new media, from paintings, novels and poetry to films, ballets, operas, musicals, symphonies and even manga. This summer at American Players Theatre, the iconic play about young lovers from two feuding families is presented in two languages — spoken English and American Sign. Directed with extraordinary vision by John Langs and featuring noted Deaf actor Joshua Castille as Romeo, it is an exquisitely beautiful production that awakens the well known text, making it feel fresh, vital and deeply poignant.

Similar to Deaf West’s Broadway production of the musical Spring Awakening, adding deaf characters into the mostly hearing world of the play deepens the divide between the two groups, highlighting gaps in communication and amplifying the tragedy. There are already so many moments in Romeo and Juliet where messages are misplaced and characters refuse to hear arguments from others; making the language barriers visual reinforces that theme.

While inserting some American Sign Language (ASL) into the world’s best known love story could feel gimmicky, under Langs’ direction (and in the hands of this cast) it is anything but. Instead it is another layer of storytelling that is executed with as much precision and care as APT normally takes with the language of its classic texts. The entire production is richer, more powerful, more emotion-packed as a result.

Castille is superb as Romeo — his whole body is engulfed with the tragic lover’s changeable passions. With a fresh, youthful face that’s as open as a blank page and his graceful, precise signing, he does the seemingly impossible — Castille makes the text’s poetry even more beautiful. Instead of giving the character one spoken voice, this production puts several actors in the aisles to speak Romeo’s lines as they are being signed. Older and younger, male and female actors take turns voicing his part, underlining his words instead of interpreting them. The effect is magical.

Isabelle Bushue matches Castille’s energy as Juliet, elegantly making the heroine’s lines her own, even though they are some of the most familiar sentences in dramatic literature. The actress also brings a carefree, even silly youthfulness to the role that embraces Juliet’s naivete. With that innocence is real joy, most clearly on display in a gorgeous moment that marks the end of the first half of the performance. Bushue’s initial exuberance as Juliet makes her quieter romantic moments and her final desperation stand out even more.

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