Jules, at the Promenade Playhouse, is an updated version of Romeo and Juliet. Wait, wasn’t that done with West Side Story and many other “hip” Shakespearean productions?
To be sure, the story of lovers doomed by their separate backgrounds was old in Shakespeare’s time. Playwright Hawley Anderson’s update makes Jules (Juliana Moreno), her Juliet, a contemporary teenager from a military family, and Romeo, here called Rahim, a boy from an East Indian Muslim background. The time and place is post-9/11 America. Jules’s father, a Gulf War veteran, is dead (he took his life); her oldest brother Sam enlists in the Marines and gets sent to Iraq; her other brother Ty is also itching to join up, but wages his own war against Rahim, whose presence in his high school he finds intolerable. Jules has seen her brothers rough up Rahim but is not overly concerned about him – until she falls for him.
This may seem similar to West Side Story’s use of ethnicity to stand in for the Capulet/Montague family feud. But where the Montagues of Shakespeare’s play and the Puerto Rican Sharks gang of West Side Story were like small armies equally matched with their adversaries, Jules’ Rahim, played as a sensitive but enigmatic loner by Ajay Kasar, is alone, both in his ethnicity and his anti-war beliefs. Jules is excited and moved by him, but she is not easily converted to his political stance. Not that the overprotective Ty (Chris Goss) and his tough-minded girlfriend Rosie (Jessica Plotin) or her shallow friends Tommy (Johnny Rowles) and Cindy (Tawny Mertes) understand that her love is separate from the issues of politics, religion and race.
The hostilities of all the characters, born of ignorance and fueled by fear, lead to the inevitable tragedy – but here Anderson has added another twist. Where Shakespeare’s Juliet was shocked when Romeo killed her cousin Tybalt, Jules knows that Ty wants to “get” Rahim. She also fears, although she doesn’t realize it, that her mixed feelings about both Rahim and Ty will lead her to act on the situation in a way that will only make things worse.
Anderson’s text, abetted by Davin Palmer’s understated direction, keeps the touchy politics of the story under control. Liberals might see the cards stacked too much against Rahim’s viewpoint, especially when he commits an act of political protest that offends Jules. But Anderson uses politics as the device against which the saga of thwarted teen love plays out. The emphasis here is on the teens and their world, which is portrayed with a bit of satire and a lot of sympathetic gusto. (There is also, be forewarned, a lot of salty language).
The players, including Sharon Repass as Jules’s wholesome mom, Robin Stuart as her dad and Jonathan Weber as Sam give performances ranging from serviceable to amusing. Goss and Kasar do what they can with the polar opposites of Ty and Rahim (as with their original counterparts Tybalt and Romeo, the roles don’t allow for the tantalizing contradictions of Jules/Juliet). Plotin stands out as the hard-nosed Rosie. But Moreno outclasses them all, bringing Jules’s vulnerability to vivid life. On stage for almost the entire play, she is obliged to play out every human emotion there is and although she is always believable as a teenager, her adjustment to grim adult realities takes place before our eyes. She is also the play’s narrator, sitting in a chair at the stage’s edge – and not until the very end do we realize the location from which this modern-day Juliet is talking to us.
Jules plays Saturdays and Sundays through March 4 at the Promenade Playhouse, 1404 Third Street Promenade, 323.960.7782.