Review: Mobile Shakespeare Unit's Spirited ROMEO & JULIET Settles Into The Public

By: Apr. 18, 2016

For the past three seasons, as initial director of the Public Theater's Public Works program, Lear deBessonet has mounted wonderful musical adaptations of THE TEMPEST, THE WINTER'S TALE and THE ODYSSEY; Delecorte Theater productions that each utilized over 200 performers in grand spectacles of drama and pageantry.

Sheldon Best and Ayana Workman
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Her latest Public Theater assignment is a sharp yin to that yang. The company's Mobile Shakespeare Unit carries on Joseph Papp's mission to make free Shakespeare productions available to everyone by bringing small-cast, easy-to-travel mountings of The Bard's classics to prisons, nursing homes, community centers and shelters throughout the five boroughs before settling into The Public for a limited run.

While on tour, many of their audience members have never attended a live professional theatre production before, so one of the intriguing elements for seasoned audience members is to try and see the performance through the eyes of someone serving time in a high-security prison or seeking safety in a shelter for battered women.

So the spirited and freewheeling ROMEO & JULIET now inhabiting the House of Papp is a ninety-minute diversion played by a nine-member cast on a simple rug surrounded on four sides by a few rows of audience. Costume changes are done on the fly near the two racks of clothing stations on opposite ends.

David Ryan Smith ?(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Marques Toliver sets the scene by singing Shakespeare's famous prologue with elevated dramatics, accenting his description of Verona's two feuding households with strokes of his violin. A mere moment later, Max Woertendyke's Mercutio and Danny Rivera's Benvolio are having a go at it with Jorge Eliézer Chacón's Tybalt.

As the tragic adolescents quickly lusting for each other, Sheldon Best's cocky Romeo with a sensitive side is a fine match for Ayana Workman's sweet and playful Juliet. Also notable are Maria-Christina Oliveras' gregarious nurse and the robust David Ryan Smith, doubling as Friar Laurence and Lord Capulet.

As is customary with Mobile Shakespeare Unit's productions, there's little room for subtext within the swift, plot-driven storytelling, but there's certainly joy to be found in celebrating the project's mission. And with its inexpensive ticket prices, this ROMEO & JULIET offers an excellent way to introduce young viewers to Shakespeare.