By William Shakespeare; Directed by Dan Hasse
Presented by Shakespeare In The Square
Off Off Broadway, Classic Play
Runs Through 2.8.15
The Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street
by Sarah Weber on 1.18.15
Elise Kibler in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by John Hess.
BOTTOM LINE: The tale of Romeo and Juliet retold by actors who actually understand the text. Thank goodness!
The woeful tale of Juliet and her Romeo is one we have heard countless times. Since The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet was first produced and published there have been countless edits, updates, adaptations, corrections, and translations of this play. It’s difficult to imagine the Bard’s original intent. Although we will never know what those first performances were like (such is the ethereal nature of theatre), at least early texts can offer us a window to a time long gone. The up-and-coming company Shakespeare In The Square attempts to give a glimpse of Shakespeare-as-intended by using the First Folio as their principle text. (The First Folio was published in 1623, and is often considered the most reliable and accurate text for 20 of Shakespeare’s plays.) In conjunction with the company’s blend of Elizabethan theatre practices and a minimalist set, this production’s bare-bones focus on Shakespeare’s text is a relief. And what a relief it is to watch actors who both love and understand Shakespeare’s language.
The basic story is the same as it has been for roughly 500 years. Two noble families in the city of Verona, the Capulets and the Montagues, are mortal enemies. Yet, as fate would have it, Juliet (Elise Kibler) and Romeo (Taylor Myers) meet at a party and fall hopelessly in love. In spite of the risks, the young lovers decide to marry, posthaste, in secret. The man who marries them, Friar Lawrence (Jack De Sanz), hopes this marriage may begin the end of the family discord. Though the Friar’s hopes prove true by the end, he and the lovers fail to anticipate the grave sacrifices required to achieve such peace. All well intentioned plans for the couple go awry after Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt (Chris Dooly), challenges Romeo to a duel and loses. In killing Tybalt, Romeo is banished from Verona.
While Friar Lawrence plans a way to reverse Romeo’s sentence, Juliet’s father is set on forcing her to marry another man in a few days. So, the Friar offers Juliet a potion which will put her in a deep enough slumber that feigns death. Meanwhile, the Friar attempts to send Romeo a letter that explains the plan to fake Juliet’s death so that she may slip out of Verona and run away with Romeo. Like the marriage, all well intentioned plans go awry -- Romeo never received this letter and he commits suicide. Upon waking and finding her husband dead, Juliet takes her own life as well.
The entire cast does a wonderful job bringing these characters to life. Considering only five actors play the entire laundry-list of people in this play, it is impressive to watch well-executed commitment to each character. Constantine Malahias’ character changes are especially remarkable. His portrayal of Mercutio is a captivating whirlwind to watch on its own. But each part he plays is so distinct I sometimes had to remind myself this was indeed the same actor. The minimalist set and lighting design also deserve praise. Phil Falino and Timothy Meola’s choices are simple in principle but their precise execution adds beauty to an otherwise bare stage.
With all of the production’s strengths in mind, I feel the cast’s potential was cut short the show's quick pace. In the second half especially the actors pummeled through the language, giving neither themselves nor the audience opportunity to comprehend the text. Even some of Shakespeare’s best sexual innuendo was passed over for the sake of speed. This is especially disappointing considering how clearly each actor has closely studied the script. I understand the desire to keep the play as true to “two hours traffic of our stage” as possible, especially in an era where few people are inclined to stay at the theatre for several hours. Frankly, I am far from an ardent fan of The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Yet, I would have loved to watch these actors give themselves the time to explore and play with this text.
(The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet plays at The Gym at Judson at 243 Thompson Street through February 8, 2015. Performances are Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8PM; Fridays at 7PM and 10PM; Saturdays at 8PM; and Sundays at 2PM and 8PM. Tickets are $45 general admission, $15 for students, and $75 to sit on stage and have one drink. Tickets are available at shakespeareinthesquare.com or by calling 718.790.3081.)