The first thing you see when you enter the historic Strand auditorium for Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s ROMEO AND JULIET (playing through Nov. 3rd) is Janie E. Howland’s ingenious “O” (as in Shakespeare’s “Wooden O.”) Some of the audience is seated on the curved stage so that the circular sweep of the “O” leads the eye to the front section below, where the rest of the audience sits. For once the Strand feels cozy! (You don’t even notice the empty, unused seats in the back.) Howland’s ancient balustrade on the weathered stucco dwelling where Romeo will scale the balcony (for the best gravity defying kiss of any R&J production I’ve seen) adds immeasurably to the authentic 16th century atmosphere of the piece.
Directors Bobbie Steinbach and Allyn Burrows have made more than a few clever changes to the staging (and the text): The duels which are almost always staged with swordplay are now fought with knives, conjuring up rival gang warfare. Kathleen Doyle’s inventive costumes are a grand mix of classic and contemporary, emphasizing the timelessness of the story: Needless feuds are causing violence, in families and factions all over the world even today, especially today, so the directors draw the audience in, with an almost magnetic force. Actors stride the aisles, turn verse into rap and high-five people in the audience when a point is well taken.
ASP also takes a couple of certainties and tweaks them for wonderful effect: One, at the end, is a very effective surprise—which I won’t reveal. The other is the impact of Romeo’s comrade, Mercutio. Mind you, he’s always vital to the action but Maurice Emmanuel Parent makes him the star. He’s the one who sets the tragedy in motion and he’s the one who curses the two houses of Montague and Capulet.
He struts about, hooting and caterwauling and he even dances “with catlike tread.” (Doyle gives him a mask for the ball with feathers sticking up like ears!) You cannot take your eyes off him for a moment because you might miss his marvelous antics, up and down the Capulet stairs, over and across the passageway behind the balcony. He’s a whirlwind. He makes you pay attention to Shakespeare’s glorious language, delivering the Queen Mab speech with a flourish. How about that!
I don’t mean to neglect Romeo, a sincere and athletic (the kiss!) Jason Bowen and Juliet, a lovely, effusive Julie Ann Earls. If it weren’t for them, you wouldn’t have Ken Baltin as Juliet’s commanding father or Paige Clark as a perky Benvolio (here Benvolia so she and Mercutio can be “off to bed” and it means something entirely new!)
The directors have reassigned some speeches and ditched a number of characters, including the Montague parents—and I, for one, didn’t miss them at all. Paula Langton is a much younger, more flirtatious Nurse than I’m used to and Miranda Craigwell becomes Lord Capulet’s “trophy wife”—odd but interesting choices—but one decision left me flummoxed. Why doesn’t Romeo hold Mercutio back so that Tybalt (a headstrong Omar Robinson) has the terrible opportunity to skewer him? Much recrimination hinges thereon, methinks… but they must have a reason for changing it.
The best thing about ASP’s ROMEO AND JULIET is the visceral hold it has on the audience. You’re shocked, excited and delighted with the humor (too often neglected) Shakespeare uses to tell the story of sublime, reckless, impetuous youth.