Arts theater review

A classic love story, unraveled

MIT’s Shakespeare Ensemble returns to stage with Romeo and Juliet

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Romeo (Ilani Axelrod-Freed ’23) grieves over a seemingly-dead Juliet (Tian Lin ’23) in Shakespeare Ensemble's production of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’
Stephanie Fu

Romeo and Juliet
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Rainer Pearl-Styles
Starring MIT Shakespeare Ensemble
Kresge Little Theater
Oct. 29–30 at 8 p.m., Oct. 31 at 2 p.m., Nov 4–6 at 8 p.m.

For their first in-person show since the pandemic began, the MIT Shakespeare Ensemble put on a lighthearted and action-packed production of Romeo and Juliet. They did a wonderful job of breathing life into a play that most of us were required to stumble through in high school, using a pared-down script with plenty of comedic moments to make the production as accessible as possible. 

The play tells the tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet (Ilani Alexrod-Freed ’23 and Tian Lin ’23, respectively), a pair of teenagers whose families have been feuding for generations. It explores how easy both falling in love and descending into violence can be, emphasizing the wildness and danger within each.

Both Axelrod-Freed and Lin convey lively, distinctive personalities. Axelrod-Freed infused Romeo with youthful exuberance, skipping about as they oscillated between soaring highs and desperate lows. Despite a quick progression, Romeo and Juliet’s romance feels genuine as the lovers display their passion with trembling, blistering earnestness in words and gentle touches. Lin shows how Juliet’s resolve grows through the play: initially, she is more scattered, needing others’ approval of Romeo, but she develops a spine, silencing her trusted nurse’s objections in defense of their relationship. 

Rainer Pearl-Styles writes in the director’s note that “[Romeo and Juliet] is not a love story. This is a story about trying to find yourself within the flawed society that doesn’t support the emotional growth of adolescents, where the only way out is succumbing to the same violence from which you are trying to escape.” Many of the protagonists’ soliloquies highlight this idea, illustrating the repression that Romeo and Juliet each sought to escape. Zoe Garcia ’24, playing Tybalt, arrests the audience with her quivering rage, showing how violence builds and bubbles under the surface, waiting to be released. When Tybalt kills, it is sudden but not surprising. In contrast, when laughing, joyful Romeo murders Tybalt with cold intention in their eyes, the shift is palpable. This is not a love story. The violence takes center stage, suffocating the budding infatuation. 

Despite putting on a tragedy, the Shakespeare Ensemble incorporates quite a bit of levity — Romeo’s throwing themself at the ground in despair and Juliet’s dramatic outbursts and gestures never failed to make the audience laugh. Sarah Knopf ’22 shines as Mercutio, delivering a cheeky, swagger-filled performance heightened by fluid physical humor. No part is too small for the actors to commit to their performance — even Lord Capulet’s servant Peter (Jurgis Ruza G) had the audience in stitches, rolling his eyes or facepalming in the background whenever the main characters made bad decisions.

The production captures our attention from the second the lights come up, when the entire cast stares out into the audience, reading the prologue as if it were a prophecy. From that point forward, the actors’ comedic asides, unrestrained displays of emotion, and eventual descent into violence keep the audience engaged until the very end. Take some time this weekend to be transported to Verona and watch the story of everyone’s favorite star-crossed lovers unfold!