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Oh, break, my heart: the cast of NYSTI’s Romeo and Juliet

Labors Lost

By James Yeara

Romeo and Juliet

By William Shakespeare, directed by Ron Holgate

New York State Theatre Institute, through March 24

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a hit mashup of Jane Austen’s novel and the undead, with a few ninja warriors ladled in. More a send-up of Austen’s cultural criticism than an exploration of the novel’s themes and characters, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has spawned both a movie version (starring Natalie Portman to be released in 2011) and the similarly incongruous splicing, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. It’s all good clean fun until someone loses their classics, or a colon to the living dead.

The New York State Theatre Institute’s latest foray into Shakespeare is a version of Romeo and Juliet credited as editor “A.L. Rowse’s ‘Contemporary Shakespeare,’”and has been further edited by the production’s director, Ron Holgate. The mashup produced on stage from this editing of an edited version of Shakespeare’s most-often-taught play defines the words “unique,” “peculiar,” and “arbitrary.”

From the moment the call to prayer music is pumped through the speakers (original Middle Eastern-flavored music by Will Severin punctuates each scene division) the production proclaims its effort to be distinct and contemporary. Taking photos of two houses standing on opposite sides of a large cobblestone street, a photojournalist (Richard Harte) utters the well-known-to-high-school-freshmen prologue, “Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair Fallujah where we lay our scene.”

The offspring produced by Rowse’s and Holgate’s splicing of grandfather Shakespeare’s genes is an unremarkable Romeo and Juliet with Iraqi place names, Muslim costumes, and little else to distinguish the text or connect it to the characters or the audience. Garett E. Wilson creates a magnificent set that, with a shift of accessories on the door, could have been anywhere else, and which John McLain lights with an evocative sense of time and place that would be suitable for anywhere else. For all the PR on “the Shiite Montague family” and the “Sunni Capulets,” not much is made of this schism visually, aurally, emotionally, or thematically.

The Capulets have a lot of blonde women nicely dressed in expensive European gowns; as Lady Capulet, Mary Jane Hansen wears a galaxy worth of sparkles on a purple evening gown that she could have worn in any Noël Coward play. The contemporary jeans and sneakers for Tybalt (Anthony CeFala), Mercutio (Matt Stapleton), Romeo (Brian Nemiroff) and Benvolio (Matthew J. Sekellick) make the rumbles look like a yet-to-be-produced musical titled West Bank Story.

Most of Shakespeare’s lines (edited to remove most of the bawdiness, though Mercutio’s “prick of noon” survived the typical NYSTI circumcision) for Romeo and Juliet are here, but “contemporized” into a bland smoothness, as if the locale alone were the only connection to the words, the emotions, and the characters that the performers needed. It would have been something unique if Mercutio had uttered “a fatwa on both your houses,” but the production offers a hodgepodge of contemporary touches: A boom box plays techno music for the Capulet feast; Friar Laurence (John Romeo) becomes Imam Laurence (but still shriving and hearing confession); the captain of the Iraqi army (a commanding David Bunce) speaks the Prince’s lines and reads a nifty letter recapitulating the plot and doing away with the apothecary scene, the fight between Paris and Romeo in Juliet’s tomb, Imam Laurence’s confession and the acts of contrition from the warring families that mark the peace between them and the end of Shakespeare’s play.

Though a deeper integration and exploration of Sunni-Shiite schism could have been memorable, what’s missing in NYSTI’s Romeo and Juliet is what makes NYSTI’s children’s theater and musicals so engaging and memorable: a multilevel connection between words, actors, and audience, all without zombies, abayas, or jihads.


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