Department of Theater Arts production portrays the distance social media creates between human connection

APU’s Department of Theater Arts production of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” makes Franco Zeffirelli’s story of courtly love seem like it was a century ago.

It is reminiscent of youth rebellion against societal laws and mimics the emotional intimacy that Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes displayed on screen in the 1996 re-make of the ancient love story.

In the APU adaptation, the Montagues are a well-known family in the artistic community of Southern California. Their 96’ trademark Hawaiian shirts, dyed hair, sunglasses and neck chains are traded for skinny jeans, bandanas, messy man-buns and tattoos; Benvolio cradles an acoustic guitar instead of driving his yellow convertible. The clan of Capulets, who are successful corporate real estate developers seeking to obtain the land that houses the Montague Music Center, contrast the Montagues with their crisp Ralph Lauren polo shirts rather than tight leather vests and corduroy jackets on Venice Beach.

But in comparison to the scenes where DiCaprio is captured smoking a cigarette and writing in a journal, or when Juliet is seen standing alone on a balcony in her angel costume, Kayla Backer, who plays Juliet, awaits her lover’s approach at her parents fundraising event by sitting alone on her phone in a quiet corner.

The looming problems brought about by the age of digital media are evident in the distance between the two ‘star-crossed’ lovers: when Romeo comes to see her following the fundraiser, instead of reciting the original Shakespearean dialogue from the balcony of her bedroom, Juliet sits cross-legged on stage and vigorously taps the screen of her phone. The audience even catches a glimpse of frustration from her facial expression. She is captivated by the device, even with her lover being in close proximity.

When they are together on stage, the lovers don’t get to fully enjoy each other’s presence. Each kiss is interrupted either by words, another actor’s entrance, or the need to be in a different place at the same time. It plays to the theme of impossible love and the carnal craving to be together, but it simultaneously swallows up the lovers in the fast-paced lifestyle of the 21st century.

A wedge between the lovers is further driven by the fact that they are an interracial couple from very different social backgrounds. When Romeo borrows the T-shirt of a waiter to sneak into the fundraiser that Juliet’s parents organized, he looks comical with his lace-up Dr. Martens, facial hair, beanie and skinny jeans. Juliet wears red lipstick and puts her hair in a half-up do; her long, curled locks fall elegantly down the front of her silky mini-dress. They come from different worlds and their incompatibility is presented as a barrier that prevents their intimacy.

Within the context of a conservative Evangelical environment, the union of Romeo and Juliet pushes the boundaries of predominantly Christian values, such as remaining abstinent until marriage and the compatibility of partners. It raises the question that many struggle to find the answer to: “What do we do when we love someone we are not supposed to?”

Only after Juliet lays down by Romeo, knife in hand, do Capulet and Montague finally settle on peace between the two households. The scene, where the majority of the characters find themselves grouped in pairs on stage and offering hugs of condolences to each other, is strenuous: only in the wake of death do all the characters engage in such human contact.

The scene itself seems overdramatized in comparison to Mercutio’s death, where background actors were present to capture Tybalt’s shot and the scene of the fight on IPhone cameras.

“Romeo & Juliet” is another example of the many ways social media and technology diminishes the traditional methods of human interaction. So much so, that mourning and grief looks exaggerated from an audience perspective when our days are spent like Juliet’s––tapping vigorously at a phone screen.