Romeo and Juliet
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 4, 2009
Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a story of a Great Love; it is also a story of a Great Hate. It is the latter theme that predominates in Dario D'Ambrosi's audacious and provoking new production at La MaMa. I found the show's concept fascinating and its execution startlingly but only fitfully effective. It is at its best when it surprises, so be aware that there will be a few spoilers here so that I can explain it properly.
To begin, though this is Romeo and Juliet at its most essential, it is barely the play we know so well. Perhaps no more than six or seven dozen of Shakespeare's words are used here, and only half of them are said aloud. There are four actors: Enrique Esteve and Ashley C. Williams portray the title characters, while Neimah Djourabchi and Brian Waters play two soldiers, each affiliated with one of the two houses (Montague and Capulet) in the story. The action lasts no more than 15 minutes, with vaguely interactive prologue and epilogue surrounding that.
As I've said, the love story does not seem to be the point. Romeo and Juliet are naked throughout their brief appearance, and they speak words of love, but their huge unstoppable passion isn't especially conveyed. Instead, the eternal hatreds—of their two warring clans; of people of different cultures, religions, and nations throughout the ages—are D'Ambrosi's focus. And the indifference, or at least the lack of active opposition, to the heinous effects of these hatreds are the main takeaway from this piece.
Two moments worked spectacularly well for me. One came right at the beginning of the piece, after the audience was ushered into the theatre (and asked to choose one side or the other (i.e., Capulet or Montague). The soldier for each clan passes among the audience members in his group, serving cookies from a silver tray. While we eat, we see projections on the rear wall of the stage of war footage—as familiar as the six o'clock news, it's a montage of various bloody battles and massacres that could be Darfur or Afghanistan or Bosnia or Vietnam. As I ate my elegant little ladyfinger, I thought: I feel like Marie Antoinette right now.
The second great theatrical jolt comes near the end, after Romeo and Juliet have been killed by the forces (tangible and metaphorical) opposing their union: the two soldiers silently and without comment exchange uniforms.
I think D'Ambrosi's vision would have been better achieved in a more conducive venue: the relatively traditional proscenium architecture of La MaMa's First Floor Theatre limits the ways that the audience can move, and D'Ambrosi seems to want to bring us right into the heart of the action of his play.
But though the piece doesn't deliver quite the shocking blow that I think its creator is hoping for, it offers some intriguing food for thought. I'm not sorry to have seen it. If you're up for something different from the run-of-the-mill production of Shakespeare, this brief presentation may be of interest to you.