Romeo and Juliet
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
July 12, 2007
(For a detailed plot synopsis, click here.)
The Drilling CompaNY's new revival of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is the perfect embodiment of what New York in the summertime is all about: free outdoor theatre in an unusual place (a municipal parking lot on the Lower East Side) being performed on a beautiful night (at least, at the performance I attended) while the wild energy of the city teems all around, influencing the show and vice versa. The 14th annual installment of Shakespeare in the Park(ing) Lot (now one of the city's summer institutions) is, if nothing else, a "happening," a total experience that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
The Drilling CompaNY has some very good parts at their disposal, however, like the high-spirited, high-energy production they're currently putting on. Brad Coolidge and Emilie Stark-Menneg, giving a pair of winning performances as the title characters, lead a talented and able-bodied cast that give this old warhorse a new lease on life.
Having seen this play now for the second time in a month clarifies something about it for me. My initial reaction to Romeo and Juliet's abrupt shift from romantic comedy to archetypal tragedy, which I found to be jarring and untempered, was that it was a shortcoming of the production. But, after seeing The Drilling CompaNY's version I think it's more a fault of the Bard himself. Shakespeare goes a little schizo after Tybalt and Mercutio's fatal showdown, plunging Romeo and Juliet into darkness without any warning. And while his handling of Romeo and Juliet's dual suicide is one of the dramatic high points in his canon, getting there is a bit of a drag. One gets the feeling that Shakespeare pads the second half of the play with dramatic filler for the sake of balance when he'd rather cut to the chase.
Director Tom Demenkoff makes the most of the play's weird structure with a bunch of inventive and helpful decisions. First among these is re-setting the action in modern day New York as a dispute between warring homeless families, a choice that works well. While I wouldn't quite say that the Capulets and the Montagues come across as homeless, they certainly feel like disenfranchised denizens of the show's blue collar melting pot neighborhood. Demenkoff also gives the actors physical activities and props to play with, a simple enough move that makes a big difference. Being able to eat some fruit, play with a handsaw, or wave a gun around grounds the actors so they don't float off into the highfalutin stratosphere of Shakespearean oratory. Speaking of guns, they are the weapon of choice in this production. But, instead of using caps or other fake sound effects, Demenkoff signifies gunshots with the collective screams of the show's four-person ensemble—a great choice.
The location itself enhances Romeo and Juliet immeasurably, as the neighborhood becomes a character in the show. Whether one is noticing a pair of young girls watching from an apartment window across the street, a deli delivery guy whistling a tune as he passes on his bike, or the occasional vehicle that actually comes to park, the sights and sounds of life happening all around Romeo and Juliet give it an extra kick.
As I mentioned before, the two leads are an endearing pair. Played respectively as a guitar-carrying hipster and a clumsy, mischievous spaz, Coolidge's Romeo and Stark-Menneg's Juliet are a funny, sweet, and romantic couple. Their playing of the balcony scene is fraught with giddy adolescent excitement. And their rendering of the play's sad denouement—in which Juliet wakes from her slumber at exactly the same moment when Romeo drinks the poison—emphasizes the point that patience is not a virtue of the young.
Other standouts in this fine cast include indie theater veterans David Marantz and Don Carter. Marantz's Mercutio is a dope-smoking wise-ass, whose take on the Queen Mab speech evokes the scoundrel ramblings of a blowhard refugee from a 1970s Sidney Lumet movie. Carter's Lord Capulet is a boozy cross between Mickey Rourke's Bukowski doppelganger from the movie Barfly and Bill the Butcher from Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. As always, both men are excellent.
Kudos to The Drilling CompaNY for mounting this wonderful production. With each passing year, Shakespeare in the Park(ing) Lot becomes more an essential part of New York's summertime fabric, and I encourage everyone to go check them out. This Romeo and Juliet will give you one more reason to be glad you live in this crazy damn town.