Home Live Theatre Theatre Reviews Romeo & Juliet: Alive in Brooklyn
Romeo & Juliet: Alive in Brooklyn
Written by Scott Katz   
Monday, 17 May 2010 23:31

New York City is a place where people have been inspired to build empires.  People dream here.  People work here.  From far away, people aspire to come and succeed here.  But mostly, people just live here.  There likely is not an ethnic, cultural, or religious group extant in the world that is not represented here in some form or another, co-existing in the prototypical melting pot that is New York City.  Each culture is showcased by a vibrant community with its own sights, smells, tastes, traditions, and language living in its own little slice of the big city.  However, given the relatively small size of New York, these communities often need to share space and can butt up against each other, potentially creating an undercurrent of unease in the streets.  On a daily basis, New York City is a success – its various subcultures coexist and add to the whole.  On a daily basis, people go on about their day-to-day and interact without conflict.  But every so often...


There is a spark.  Which ignites into an incident.  Left uncontrolled, it turns into a tragedy.


It is into this appropriate and timely setting that Brooklyn's Genesis Repertory Ensemble restates one of Shakespeare's signature tragedies, Romeo and Juliet.  Verona, Italy becomes Brooklyn, USA, and the Montagues and Capulets are a Russian-Jewish and a Palestinean-Arab family, respectively.  While the entirety of Shakespeare's original text is respected – this is not a metaphorical take a la West Side Story – don't be surprised to hear some liberties taken such as the use of "Pelham Parkway" or "Brooklyn" in place of the original Italian locales or some Hebrew and Arabic epithets in the aftermath of the culture clash that opens the performance.  Similarly, after being blessed by Friar Lawrence, Romeo's reply of "Baruch Ha-Shem...  What?  I'm Jewish." proved to be a hit with the audience.


Romeo & Juliet in Brooklyn (Image © 2010 Genesis Repertory Ensemble, Inc. Used by Permission)



Fine performances are delivered all aound by the cast, each of whom recite Shakespeare's classic iambic pentameter in fluent Brooklynese.  In particular, we'd like to call attention to John Stillwaggon as Mercutio and Courteney Lynn Wilds as the Nurse.  These two actors provide wonderful support and comic relief, successfully stealing every scene that they're in.  The one scene where the two collide with each other creates enough sparks that it makes us want to see them as leads in a revival of a 1940s screwball comedy such as His Girl Friday (that's The Front Page to you theater buffs).   Stillwaggon's line readings are stuffed to the limit with inflections and mannerisms that come at you at breakneck pace.  Don't even try to keep up or guess what he'll come up with next; it's not possible.  Just strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.  Making us laugh during a tragedy shouldn't work, but it was a deliberate construction of Shakespeare's in order to lull the audience into a false sense of security in advance of the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt (played here by Miguel Angel Sierra) that serve to propel the story inexorably toward its tragic conclusion. 


(Image © 2010 Genesis Repertory Ensemble, Inc.  Used by Permission.)

A threat to Romeo from the

Capulets comes in the form

of a graffiti tag in this update

of the Shakespeare classic.


Other notables in the cast include Kevin Sheynerman (Vanechka), Mohammed Saad Ali (Marid), John Karcher (Suliyan), Anna Frankl-Duval (Benvolio), Robert Aloi (terrific as Lord Capulet), Jay Michaels (Lord Montague), Lisa Tosti (Lady Capulet), Kristin O'Blessin (Lady Montague), Theresa Chow (The Princess), Eric Fitzgerald (The Prince), Louis Tullo (Paris), Christopher Sirota (Ammar), Tara Abyssinia-Klang (Belly Dancer), Francis Callahan (Friar Laurence), Lorenzo Valoy (Imam), and Jennifer Stella (Apothecary).


However, the success of any production of Romeo and Juliet always falls squarely on the leads and how successfully they play their roles.  No worries here as Aileen Lanni convincingly navigates Juliet's character arc from sheltered ingenue to passionate young woman.  Anchoring the cast is future star Nelson Gonzalez as Romeo.  At only 16 years of age, this is Nelson's first starring role in professional theater, and we think it is just the beginning of much, much more to come from him.  Nelson's take on Romeo is subdued and brooding, and he portrays the doomed Romeo as going through life carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders with an authenticity that belies his youth. 


(l-r) Actors Aileen Lanni and Nelson Gonzalez in

costume as Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers.

(Image © 2010 Genesis Repertory Ensemble, Inc.  Used by Permission.)


This production of Romeo and Juliet was designed and directed by Mary Elizabeth MiCari, a founding member of Genesis.  Ms. MiCari was inventive in her use of the unique space of Brooklyn's Block Institute where the play is currently being staged.  The audience becomes part of the action as characters enter from the back of the theater, and the vast majority of the action takes place in front of, rather than on the stage, so events unfold at audience-level much of the time.  We are the innocent bystanders on the streets of Brooklyn bearing eyewitness to the violence in our neighborhoods.  Should this production ever move into Manhattan, we'd like to see some of these elements retained.  Regarding the music used, if this version of the play were ever made into a film, it would have a killer soundtrack as Ms. MiCari's music choices – ranging from urban gangsta to Lady Gaga – firmly plant this classic tale in the here and now and effectively underscore the mood of each scene.  Further, sound effects, such as a thumping heartbeat that fills the theater immediately preceding Juliet's revival from her self-induced coma, are done with care and intelligence.  Equally impressive were the decisions to pull back and let a scene breathe on its own without music or sound effects.  It takes a skilled director, which Ms. MiCari obviously is, to know when to trust that the material and the actors are strong enough on their own to convey the emotions of the scene.  In the finale, when Juliet discovers that Romeo has killed himself and she takes her own life, it was so still and quiet in the theater that one became aware of the silence, which reinforced that scene with a profound gravitas.  Although we knew it was coming, and that it had to happen, the performances coupled with the way it was staged still made the death scene of the star-crossed lovers deeply moving. 


A unique touch of Genesis' production is the use of filmed pieces projected onto a giant screen at the back of the stage that weave throughout the live action and allow the play to break free of the confines of its staging area, making the story and the environment feel all the more expansive.  The effective footage, with the actors in costume walking through familiar locales in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, was directed by another Genesis founder, Jay Michaels, and shot by cinematographer Christopher Sirota.  The technical aspects of the production were also top-notch as Eric Fitzgerald and Mr. Sirota missed nary a cue in their control of the sound, lights, music, and film elements during the almost three-hour show.


We'd like to give special commendation to Genesis Repertory for its continued practice of colorblind casting.  The cast of this production of Romeo and Juliet is as diverse as the people on the streets of Brooklyn itself.  Never mind that many of the actors who play the Montagues and Capulets are not actually Jewish or Arab ; they play their roles powerfully, and that makes them suitable choices.  Similarly, there are some supporting male roles cast with females and African-Americans cast in roles that traditionally went to Caucasian actors.


As of this writing, there are still two performances left in this run of the play.  Head on over to the website of Genesis Repertory at www.genesis-repertory.org to get directions to Brooklyn's Block Institute and for information regarding ordering tickets.  Tickets are extremely value-priced, and it's well worth the trip – you'll be helping to support local theater in our communities as well as experiencing a wholly original and thought-provoking take on an established and entertaining classic.






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