BWW Reviews: A More Engaging Romeo and Juliet, 3 Blocks from Broadway's in R+J: STAR-CROSS'D DEATH MATCH
Orlando Bloom, park your motorcycle, and walk three blocks to a bar that used to be called Harley's, where there is a weird, well-acted, fun, immersive, boozy bro party production of Shakespeare's tragedy that is, in several ways, more engaging and far more original than your Romeo and Juliet on Broadway - with a ticket price of ten dollars.
That the Off-Off Broadway Romeo and Juliet is so good may come as a shock to those put off by its absurdly reworked title, R+J: Star-Cross'd Death Match, or by the name of the theater company, Three Day Hangover, or by the first 15 minutes of the show, which consists of drinking games, accompanied by pounding house music. There is a cash bar and a two-drink minimum, and no maximum. Half the audience is handed blue flip cups - they're on the Montague "team." The other half are given red cups - they're Capelets. There are contests to see who can flip the flip cups so that they end up on the table upside down.Before that, the audience is ushered to the second floor of the bar by a man playing a ukulele, and a woman who says "The play and the party are upstairs."
But all this is prelude to an inventive production of Shakespeare's play that arguably is closer to the experience that the Bard's contemporary audiences had - rowdy, bawdy, fun, but still capturing the meaning and feeling and language of the text.
Like Here Lies Love, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's disco-themed musical about Imelda Marcos, the audience of R+J moves around during the entire performance (there is no seating), directed to different areas of the large one-room bar to follow the actors. Like Sleep No More, the theatergoers are asked to wear masks - but (better than that Macbeth production) only during the party scene, and only if we want to, and besides they're colorful party masks. We first meet Romeo (Nick Mills) singing sadly while sitting on top of a bar. He and Juliet (Suzy Jane Hunt) first encounter one another during a dance atop a pool table (the scene later of their lustful encounter). In what may be a first, the balcony scene is conducted from Juliet's point of view; we're in her home and watch as Juliet opens the window of the bar; Romeo is wooing her below amid the passersby on 44th Street. The verbal jousting scene between Romeo and Mercutio (played by actress Jenna Panther, in one of several gender-bending casting choices), turns from Shakespeare's words into a hilarious rap; this is just one example of the spot-on adaptation by Ben Charles. Members of the audience are enlisted to play some of the characters: They put a sign saying "Paris" around the neck of one theatergoer, and added a beret on his head, then gave him the script to read his part.That stunt may give the impression of Amateur Night, but, as directed by Three Day Hangover co-founder Lori Wolter Hudson, the ten-member (actual) cast is first-rate, with standouts including Panther, Garrett Deagon as the friar, and the two leads.
Indeed, Hunt and Mills are so good - handling Shakespeare's language and emotions so persuasively - that I started to regret that their scenes together in the tragic second half were interrupted by various "we're bros having a party" shtick (more cup-flipping, Madlibs, playful props.) A fellow theatergoer with whom I talked about this afterwards - it's easier to bond in a show where you're drinking with one another for two hours -- figured that the bro approach made it harder to play the tragedy straight, that amid all the partying it would be too much of a downer.
Perhaps. What's clear is that the main downside to R+J: Star-Cross'd Death Match is that it's scheduled to play just three more performances - Wednesday through Friday, October 2nd through 4th. Update: Due to its popularity, R+J: Star-Cross'd Death Match returns! Thursdays to Saturdays, November 7-23.
Photographs by Lloyd Mulvey.