One step into Seattle Immersive Theatre’s warehouse venue of Romeo and Juliet, and it’s clear that this is a production that you have to buy into. Chintzy couches and gilded mirrors adorn the large lobby; the bar boasts themed drinks, and unsettling charcoal grey masks hang on pillars. The bartenders encourage you to take a mask as they pour your drinks, and you join the small crowd (Seattle Immersive Theatre limits its audience to 40 per show) milling around the expansive sitting room until finding a nice chaise on which to lounge.
“Immersive” is the right word for this production, whose five-room set (the old Silver Platers building in Lower Queen Anne) and close-quarters acting gets right to the heart of Shakespeare’s most beloved work. It’s a revolutionary concept that is often tried, and too often results in a juvenile production, one that resembles a high school production from teenagers who take their theatre a bit too seriously (I say that as a former member of that demographic). But the experience of Seattle Immersive Theatre isn’t in-your-face or trying to be anything it’s not–audience members aren’t on the awkward receiving end of soliloquys or unwillingly pulled into the action, but remain up-close observers of a suddenly intimate play.
Romeo and Juliet is in theory one of Shakespeare’s most intimate works, but his language and the antiquated practices of his time can easily act as a barrier between the play’s emotion and the audience’s reception, rendering some of theatre’s most romantic monologues dull or overwrought. Updating Shakespeare is a common practice (just ask Leo and Claire in Romeo + Juliet), but the leather jacket-wearing Mercutios of the world rarely deliver Shakespeare with any kind of understanding, sensitivity or musicality.
Fortunately, Seattle Immersive has harnessed some of the area’s most sensitive actors to embody the characters we all remember from high school English class, and buying into this experience is made easy by the evening’s captivating performances. Romeo is beautifully brought to life by Marianna de Fazio, whose balcony scene wonderment and multiple instances of grief gave great respect to the Bard. Devin Bannon delivered a sassy version of the normally tormented Friar Lawrence, spinning the character into a well-meaning, if not innocent, catalyst of change in the star-crossed lovers’ lives. Katherine Jett’s Juliet was simultaneously mischievous and innocent, strong-willed and utterly devoted, and she maintained a strong collaborative energy with her Nurse, Carter Rodriquez, whose delivery of Shakespeare’s text was the most musical and natural of the cast. The fight choreography between Tybalt and Mercutio gave way to the best death scene of the evening by Ryan Higgins. Grief and death emerged as two states at which the cast was adept–Romeo’s howl at hearing of Juliet’s supposed demise was as gut-wrenching as Juliet’s horrifyingly realistic choke as the dagger entered her abdomen.
(A brief note on the cross-gender casting: Though Tybalt, Romeo and the Nurse were all played by opposite genders than tradition dictates, the performance choice didn’t come off as didactic or agenda-driven. Instead, it seemed as though the actors were simply chosen for their potential to embody the character effectively, regardless of identifying gender, a choice which paid numerous dividends via the superb acting and chemistry between actors.)
The play kept moving, literally, from one scene to the next–as the scene drew to a close, one of the actors would take the hand of an audience member to lead them into the next, usually one room over. The elegant sitting room-like lobby turned out to be the set of the Capulets’ masquerade, in which champagne flowed freely and actors delivered hors d’oeuvres in an ad hoc intermission, and the thumb-biting street brawl between the Capulets and Montagues was enclosed by concrete and graffiti, a toilet artistically placed alongside garbage bags by the wall.
The set design, though obviously updated (Juliet’s bed was covered with a fuzzy hot pink blanket, a David Bowie poster looking glamorously on), also held remnants of the past in a genius nod to Shakespeare. A small Mona Lisa hung above Juliet’s bed, and the spartan concrete lot felt straight out of the Middle Ages (if you ignore the graffiti). The costuming followed in the same vein–a loose tunic shirt instead of a button-down here and there to call back to Renaissance garb, amidst the Capulets’ feminine silks and knits, with harder leather and sweats for the Montagues. Scene changes were accompanied by Regina Spektor, Finger Eleven and Pachelbel’s canon, to name a few, which gave a cinematic gloss to the travel from one room to the next. The downward spiral of Romeo and Juliet‘s star-crossed plot felt almost inevitable thanks to low synthesized drones echoing through the concrete space during the more ominous scenes; in those moments, the classic play seemed more akin to a psychological thriller.
Seattle Immersive Theatre achieves a special kind of gestalt in the interactive nature of their shows, and Romeo and Juliet emerges as much more than the sum of its parts. Despite several actors who were never quite able to embody their Shakespearean counterpart, the three-hour show’s intense energy–sexy, funny and more than a little heartwrenching–stayed afloat through the scenic flow, innovative blocking and stellar delivery. You have to buy in, but once you do, you’ll never go back.
Seattle Immersive Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet runs through Friday, March 18. You can purchase your tickets online here.