If there is any doubt that Romeo and Juliet is about the hormonal tsunami of lust that teenagers call love, director Jef Awada dispels them in this St. Louis Shakespeare production. The florid poetry of a romantic young girl is spoken aloud instead of written in a Facebook post, and the horny response of her beau is couched a touch more delicately than is currently fashionable, but Romeo and Juliet are clearly modern teenagers on the make — and theirs is as passionate, earthy and drop-dead romantic a story as two lovers against the world should be.
Perhaps "modern" is the wrong word; "timeless" is probably more accurate. Costume designer JC Krajicek has dressed the young men in late-60s period Rolling Stones' fashion: obscenely tight trousers in bright colors and patterns, lace-up white shirts, flouncy cravats, sharply tailored jackets that emphasize the shoulders and cling to the waist. Sexy? Hell yes.
The Montague boys and their Capulet counterparts swagger like rock stars. Most of their entrances are done at a run, leaping onto the stage with glee. Benvolio (Aaron Dodd) and Mercutio (Mark Kelley) are in high spirits throughout, whether it is in Benvolio's duel with Tybalt (the compactly menacing Khnemu Menu-Ra) or Mercutio's epic ball-busting of the love-sick Romeo. There is much junk-touching, crotch-thrusting and leering done by these boisterous young braggarts, as the beautiful iambic pentameter of Shakespeare is visually translated into modern locker-room talk. Bodkin jokes are funny to boys of every age, and in every age.
As for the titular couple, Curran Bajwa and Elizabeth Birkenmeier capture beautifully the nature of lovesick teenagers. Bajwa is morose and listless at first, but becomes dreamy and recklessly energetic after meeting Juliet. The casual way he tosses his unruly shock of hair out of his eyes to see her more clearly is a simple, flirtatious gesture. Birkenmeier brings an impetuous flair and a fetching smile to Juliet. While waiting for her nurse (the salty and hysterical Suzanne Greenwald), Birkenmeier rails against the slowness of "old folk" with an exasperated petulance. But when she speaks of her love, she smolders with fiery intensity.
The pair's first meeting is a glorious silent scene in which the world stops spinning for everyone but them. The assembled cast freezes near the back of the stage, watching Tybalt's angry departure, and Romeo takes Juliet's hand in the foreground. They lose themselves in each other's eyes, and find their true selves at the same time. Their wedding night completes the promise of this first moment, as Birkenmeier leaps into Bajwa's arms and knots her legs around his waist. All of her fire and his energy merge and become a blaze of very adult passion that has palpable heat.
Director Awada mirrors the beginning of their love at the end. Birkenmeier and Bajwa are wrapped around each other in death and the surviving cast is struck still again — and so is the audience. But where the characters are staggered by the tragic outcome of the tale, the audience is struck by the graphic depiction of their love: childish at first, then adult, then all-consuming and eternal. This is why Romeo and Juliet survives — and this is how it should be done.