by: JK Clarke
The value in producing a play like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in a community theater in New York City is that it serves multiple roles: it allows theater goers a chance to revisit a work they perhaps haven’t seen on stage in some time; it gives the city’s countless actors an opportunity to act in this essential work, thus adding to their experience and resume; and, most importantly, it provides young students an affordable opportunity to be introduced to the most renowned (and accessible) of all Shakespeare’s plays, perhaps then inspiring their curiosity to see more. It is, therefore, a production that comes with added responsibility and obligation.
Romeo and Juliet isn’t a terribly complex play, despite the convolutions of the plot. What’s more, it’s not a tragedy in the traditional sense: what befalls the lovers isn’t tragedy, but terrible circumstance. But it is the awful, fateful twists that give rise to some of the most nuanced characters in theater, allowing them to deliver heart rending romantic soliloquies. As such, it is the beautiful language, framed by an accessible story line, that draw in the audience, reaffirming a love for the play (and its writer) for those already familiar, and creating new adherents in those who are not. So it is a huge disappoint that Shakespeare in the Square’s current production at Judson Gym is likely to do neither.
The core of the problem lies not in overall direction, but in the two leads themselves. Elise Kibler’s performance as Juliet was most mystifying of all. By all accounts (which had to be researched as her program bio was a flippant one-liner), Ms. Kibler is an experienced actor who has just landed her first role on Broadway. But here she plays Juliet in a speed-reading monotone. Juliet’s beautiful balcony scene is lost in drab, emotionless patter: “Deny thy father and refuse thy name,/ Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,” normally a touching, emotional and gut-wrenching line is machine-gunned out by Kibler as if she’s reading the legalese at the end of a car commercial (“manufacturer’s suggested retail price . . .”). And Taylor Myers’ Romeo offers little better. Looking and sounding more like actor Scott Thompson (of the famed “Kids in the Hall” sketch television show), far too reedy and whiny for the role, and less like a young, heartthrob of a man beset by love. He, too, seems to sprint through his well-remembered lines as if he couldn’t wait to be through with them. One couldn’t help wonder if they had somewhere to be after the show. Or was it that they merely weren’t interested in being there at all?
With the wind knocked out of our sails by such lackluster leads, it wouldn’t matter if the remainder of the cast gave award winning performances. To be fair, they weren’t bad at all. Even Myers and Kibler did passably in their other roles (all actors in the production played at least four characters). Jack de Sanz gave very amusing performances, primarily alternating between the very matronly Nurse and a rather butch Friar Lawrence; and Constantine Malahias’s Mercutio and Lord Capulet were quite satisfactory. The contemporary, simple costuming (Liz McGlone), admirable fight choreography and quasi-industrial set (Phil Falino) all would have made for an entertaining low-budget, small-house production. But, no matter, for the entire play was sabotaged by a checked-out Juliet and a passionless Romeo. It’s a shame this play (presumably) doesn’t have understudies, as director Dan Hasse could possibly rescue it by passing the roles along, thus freeing the leads to do whatever it is they’re apparently being kept from.
It’s true that one shouldn’t have lofty expectations for short-run, community theater. By definition the actors are paid little, if at all, and thus must earn a living in addition working on the play. Budgets are strained, so set and costume also tend to be sparse (which is perfectly acceptable in Shakespeare, for the words are enough). But tickets for this production are $45, a price point at which the audience begins to have the right to demand certain levels of quality. And here they are by no means met. This Romeo and Juliet fails to deliver on every possible front, altogether defeating the purpose of presenting it in the first place. One can only hope that not too many newcomers are dissuaded from appreciating the magnificence that is Shakespeare’s work.
Romeo and Juliet. Through Sunday, February 8 at the Gym at Judson (243 Thompson Street, at Washington Square South). www.shakespeareinthesquare.com
Photos: 2015 Jon Hess