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Romeo and Juliet

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Ayana Workman and Sheldon Best
Photo by Joan Marcus

These days, it's more common to see William Shakespeare plays in modern dress than to see them done traditionally; it's easier, cheaper, and (sigh) more relatable. It is not, however, always better, as the clash of "ancient" speech with of-the-minute visuals can cause some dramatic disconnects—and then you still have the problem of the play in question needing to be done well. Romeo and Juliet is particularly susceptible to this treatment and its ailment: Its plot, about two teenage lovers kept apart by their bickering families until they're brought together in tragedy, is perpetually relevant, and what theatre company with its salt wouldn't want two hot young actors going at it (uh, figuratively speaking—well, most of the time)? Recent efforts both Off-Broadway (at CSC) and on (with Orlando Bloom) have engaged this approach, with limited success. But leave it to that great democratizing downtown force, The Public Theater, to make it work, and make it count.

So there's no misunderstanding, director Lear deBessonet's new production for the company's Mobile Unit, which is running at The Public's Lafayette Street headquarters through May 1, is not really for purists. It's cut down—a lot (the evening runs 90 minutes, without intermission; the uncut version lasts about twice that). Its forays into humor can be too bald, too unnecessary, and borderline destructive to the pensive mood Shakespeare labored so tirelessly to create about 420 years ago. And none of the performances is likely to linger long in your mind as a definitive interpretation. But overall it lands, sometimes electrically so, on its own terms, and is exactly the kind of fierce, unapologetic spin you'd want placed before the Mobile Unit's road audiences in all five of the city's boroughs.

DeBessonet has blown—by wind tunnel, would be my guess—every speck of dust off this play, while allowing it to retain its usual timeless sheen. She's done this by setting it in something of a time warp, with Romeo (Sheldon Best) and his Montague crew decked out and attitude-d up like 1970s hipsters and the coterie of Juliet (Ayana Workman) a tightly wound collection of 2016 gang misfits. These are all kids, then, who are driven by short-attention-span ardors we all recognize, and there's a jittery, uncertain energy about everything that suggests a group of pre-adults who are so used to acting on impulse that nothing will stop them, even when it most should. (The restricted yet wide-open playing space is Wilson Chin's design; Andrea Hood did the culture-colliding costumes.)

Sound appropriate? It sure is, though it manifests itself in unexpected ways. Never, for example, have I seen the storied balcony scene played for and receive more laughs than here: Best, operating at full swagger, and the slyly fluttering Workman depict their characters as equally aroused and distracted, as unable to wrench their eyes off of each other as they are face down the problem of their ever-warring families. Although every production contains some element of this, typically the concern weighs more deeply—perhaps too deeply. This time around, the pair, convincingly not knowing any better, treat it as though their dads had a little tiff at the office and everything will be all right tomorrow. Even the first time they share a bed, it's skittish and awkward, awash in a "can you believe we're doing this?" lightheartedness.

You may titter at renditions such as these, and you worry at times that Romeo and Juliet's rites of passage don't exactly matter to them as much as they should. (The oppressive shadow of devastation is almost always an integral part of the consummation scene.) But these are adolescents of our time, down to their bones, not adults who are well aware of where their actions lead (even if Best and Workman do not, shall we say, look their characters' ages). And it proves a home-run setup for the carpet-bombing of reality that hits in the concluding scenes, and when these two are accosted with crippling loss so unexpectedly, it packs a genuine emotional uppercut; at no other Romeo and Juliet I've seen have I been more moved when confronted with what the families' hate erases from the world. For the schools, prisons, and community centers that make up the Mobile Unit's core clientele, this is a big get.

The Public's de rigueur cross-race casting pins the secondary folks in no easily classifiable terms—both Benvolio and Tybalt are conceived as Latino (and played by Danny Riveria and Jorge Eliézer Chacón, the former as an upper-crust peacemaker and the latter as a lower-class hoodlum; Lord Capulet is the earthy, black David Ryan Smith and his wife given a heavy Eastern Asian treatment by the elegantly appointed Mahira Kakkar; Romeo's mom and Juliet's nurse are doubled by Maria-Christina Oliveras; and the white Max Woertendyke rounds out the cast as a violently mercurial Mercutio, a nerdy Paris, and a stuffy prince. Smith (who also plays Friar Lawrence) projects uncompromised authority, and Woertendyke makes his Mercutio is a mirror-perfect replication of Best's Romeo absent the superior breeding, but Oliveras's saucy, sibilant nurse is an exhausted archetype, and she strains to elicit bright laughter from her many ought-to-be-surefire bits.

The supporting roles maybe should have been played safer and more classically committed, as the strife between the factions is not as all-consuming as it should be, which wounds the conclusion somewhat. DeBessonet hasn't cut it, as an unsettling number of productions do (Baz Luhrmann's high-profile 1996 film is one of the more egregious examples), but she has downplayed it as perhaps too much of an appendage of the inexperienced, stupid affection that suffuses the rest of the night. Only the chorus ministrations of the omnipresent Marques Toliver serve to elevate it, a function he fills throughout, singing (and accompanying himself on violin) the prologue, and providing the funky-fusion soundtrack against which the action unfolds. Toliver's singing and playing of his own compositions is at once comical and spine-swerving, subway music in the process of rising above ground: a world of restless possibilities struggling to find cohesion. This Romeo and Juliet resounds and rouses in much the same way, its flaws withering in a light that reveals notably more than it obscures.

Romeo and Juliet
Through May 1
Public Theater - Shiva Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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