Falling out of love in ‘Juliet and Romeo’

Feb. 5, 2024, 10:13 p.m.

Everyone is familiar with “Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare’s tale of two star-crossed lovers who die beside each other. But what if the two lovers hadn’t died and had instead successfully escaped the vault together, run away to Paris, started a relationship and soon found themselves so lost and disillusioned that they decided to try a couple’s-therapy-cum-performance experiment that involved Juliet asking Romeo if he’d ever dreamed about having sex with an animal?

This is the conceit that Ben Duke and Lost Dog’s dance-theater piece “Juliet and Romeo” begins with. The piece, which played at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall Studio this past weekend, imagines a world where Romeo (Kip Johnson) and Juliet (Solène Weinachter) had never died. Instead, they remain by each other’s sides, their lives soon becoming marred by the problems that ordinary partners face. By the time they step on stage, Lost Dog’s Romeo and Juliet are no longer passionate young lovers but bitter adults haunted by parenthood, infidelity and the mythological status of their younger selves.

Both actors bring strong performances to the piece. Johnson’s Romeo excels at a slapstick comedy that perfectly illustrates his frustration with the pressures placed on their relationship. When Juliet asks that Romeo display the correct amount of ardor when he reenacts killing himself while also making sure that he doesn’t die right next to her, Romeo performs his “death” with an exaggerated army crawl, dragging his limp body across the stage as he moans and pretends to gasp for breath.

Weinachter, in contrast, delivers a striking performance by uncovering the magnetic ball of nerves and energy that is at the core of Juliet’s being. Juliet is a perfectionist, haunted by the couple’s mythologized glory; her desperation to believe that their love was truly as beautiful as she wants it to be becomes its own all-consuming obsession.

When Juliet describes her reunion with Romeo in the vault, for example, her eyes shoot open as she recalls how they were “kissing passionately.” The tiny hand figures she makes to illustrate their joyous kissing look more like they are furiously cannibalizing each other. 

At other times, Juliet’s exacting voice pierces through the stage, either telling Romeo that his memory of their romance is wrong or demanding that he try again, try harder to relive the scenes of their youth with the vigor that they surely once had. When Juliet feels that Romeo isn’t reenacting the moment he discovers her dead body passionately enough, she rises again and again to tell him to do it over. Each time afterward, she plays dead again, her body thumping comically against the floor.

Weinachter’s Juliet is simply mesmerizing: so critical and exacting, yet absolutely hypnotic. She demands relentless perfection from those around her and is fixated on a fantasy of her and Romeo’s love, yet the strength of her belief makes you want to root for her. Weinachter does an amazing job capturing all of Juliet’s contradictions and rough edges, as well as the ferocity of her obsession. Through Weinachter, we glimpse that Juliet is just too large of a character to contain.

The piece shines most, though, in its dance sequences. When words fail for Romeo and Juliet, they express all that is raw about a relationship — its emotions, its quotidian rhythms, its physicality — through different genres of dance. 

For Romeo and Juliet, it seems that words can only approximate their sentiments toward each other. Their desperation to bridge the gap between what they feel and what they are capable of saying becomes all the more apparent as they try to borrow Shakespeare’s lines to speak to each other. But for the pair, what cannot be conveyed through speech comes alive through dance.

According to director Ben Duke, the production team looked to put choreography in the “cracks” that allowed them “to kind of suspend a moment, or to fall inside a moment.”

“It’s like, what if you drop underneath this conversation … what’s the physicality of the emotions, the internal space of it?” Duke said. 

When Romeo recalls first meeting Juliet, for example, he illustrates his sheer, overwhelming lust through a comic dance. In it, he is essentially guided by his thrusting pelvis to Juliet’s side as “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” by the Beatles plays in the background. He jerks his neck backward and forward like a bird. His legs stretch and leap across the stage in a way that feels at once graceful and gangly. 

In another scene, Juliet returns to the couple’s Parisian apartment after a meeting with her doctor about a recent miscarriage. The mood is somber until “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell begins playing. Romeo begins swaying to the music and gently prodding at Juliet to join along until she finally does. The two dance in sync, and their movements are loose and fluid as water. The dance perfectly captures a moment of gentle, unspoken encouragement in a relationship, a quiet sense of faith even in the face of difficulty.

The most striking dance comes at the end of the piece. At this point, the couple has laid everything out on the table — infidelity, Juliet’s simmering resentment of Romeo’s inability to care for their daughter, Romeo’s frustrations with Juliet’s expectations of him — and Romeo suddenly imagines a world in which they never met. His body distorts as he appears to travel through layers and layers of time. In one especially vicious cycle, his body seems as if it is being spun through a washing machine. But by the end of the dance, Romeo looks transformed. It’s clear his feelings about Juliet will never be the same.

Ultimately, there is always the truth and then the story we tell about the truth. In “Juliet and Romeo,” the leading couple grapples desperately with the question of whether they ever loved each other — or if, at the end of the day, that was just a story.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Lydia Wei '24 is an Arts and Life columnist for the Daily. She loves blackberries. Contact Lydia at lydiawei 'at' stanford.edu

Login or create an account