Thomas Burns Scully
‘Hamlet Isn’t Dead’ is a theatre company with a mission. A mission to perform every single Shakespeare play in order of publication. You have to hand it to them, most theatre companies in New York have nowhere near that specific a goal. I mean, I love many of them dearly, but most theatre company’s mission statements are deliberately nebulous. “We want to put on plays that challenge perceptions and push boundaries forward,” is actually the slogan of a real New York Theatre company. Curious how there has never been a theatre company that has the mission statement “We want to put on bland revivals of over-produced plays,” or “We can’t afford the performance rights to good plays, so one of our friends wrote a mediocre play that we’re going to oversell to you,” or “If we weren’t in New York, this would technically be community theatre.” But I digress… because digressing is fun. Anyway, let’s talk ‘Hamlet Isn’t Dead’. In their epic quest to out-bard all of Manhattan, they are now up to ‘Richard II’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’, which they’re currently producing in rep at the Westbeth Artists' Community.
If you’re not familiar with the plots of ‘Richard II’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’… Google them. I’ll wait. The plays have been around for the better part of half a Millennium, someone else somewhere has written a better synopsis than I will, and I have important reviewing to do so I’m not writing a brand new one… are we all caught up? Good. So, the versions presented here are neatly cut, each running to about two hours with an interval. They are performed in traverse (audience either side of a central runway that acts as a stage) in a space that basically amounts to a rec-hall. Set-pieces are minimized, dress is modern and stage technology is minimal. Production wise, then, HID isn’t distancing itself from the pack of low-budget NYC Shakespeare. Therefore, as so often happens, the onus is on the actors to make it live. Just like in Shakespeare’s day. How does that go? Well, pretty good for the most part, actually.
I’m not going to separate out the shows too much here, the casts are entirely the same for both shows, and it actually reflects on them well to view their work in the wider context. The breadth and depth of their work is much more apparent when viewed as a larger joint venture. No one is this more true of than Morgan Hooper. He’s a bafflingly strong talent. In ‘Richard II’ he plays the titular King, and in R&J he is Mercutio, Paris, and the Prince (As Nick Abeel once said: “Isn’t live theatre amazing, Timmy?”). His sheer powerhouse energy and commitment in blood, sweat and other salty bodily fluids is enough to knock you off your feet. When you see him play off his cast mates, you get the impression that he’s sparring with them like a sword fighter. His scenes with Robin Rightmyer as Bolingbroke in ‘Richard II’ are especially true of this. The pair of them face down with an epic rivalry that makes you lean forward in your seat, their presences swinging towards the swashbuckling. Rightmyer also excels as Capulet in R&J, his Scorcese-esque breakdown at the news of Juliet’s disobedience is abjectly brutal, with no room for negotiation. Like a towering guitar-solo.
There is, however, some awkward middle-ground. Kitty Mortland plays the Nurse, Montague, Queen Isabella and the Duke of Aumerie. Frankly, the only role she is memorable in is the nurse, and, though she had good moments there, you are constantly aware as an audience member of how hard she’s working to keep that plate spinning. The ease with which it is done, is nowhere to be seen. The same can be said of Kineta Kunutu in all her roles. She always seems to be running very fast to get to the starting line. Alice Qin, on the other hand, has nice moments throughout both plays, but is given so little to do overall that she gets overshadowed by the meatier parts. Similarly, Amanda Clark has five roles across the two shows, but I still feel like I haven’t seen her, which is a shame, because when she had more to do I liked it. But them’s the breaks of theatre, I suppose. I will go so far as to say that there’s nothing out and out bad in either of these shows, but there were performances that was significantly more engaging than other performances.
Finally, we come to Nathan Luttrull and Madeline Wolf. These two performers’ journeys are probably the most interesting of all. Because, after ‘Richard II’, which I saw first, I wasn’t particularly sold on either of them. Both got lost in the endless stream of courtly characters that crossed the stage, had two scenes and then faded away. Luttrull was decent at playing ‘young and not ready for responsibility’ and Wolf seemed to find way after way to play various Dukes and courtiers reasonably effectively as sex-kitten-assassin types. Pandering to the crossover in the Shakespeare and Anime communities, presumably (I’m not complaining, I’m just observing). So, when I read they would be Romeo and Juliet on the second night, I was a little trepidatious. But, damn, what a revelation.
When they were each given a role to sink their teeth in to they went back for seconds. As the anemic, ‘pre-Juliet’ Romeo, I still wasn’t buying Luttrell, but as soon as you put him and Wolf together, the show jumped up to another level. Through films, theatre, parody and drama school Shakespeare class, it is no exaggeration to say that I have seen the balcony scene a million billion times. They made me feel like I was watching it virginally. That’s no mean feat. Bravo. At the risk of sounding like a Hollywood hack, their chemistry was electric. Wolf plays the line of doe-eyed innocent and sexually intoxicated brilliantly. Luttrull transformed from tolerable second fiddle to effective leading man in a heartbeat. There’s nothing more enjoyable than forgetting you’re in a theatre and seeing two people actually fall in love, and that’s what I got to see in them. Color me impressed.
So, that’s the cast, but what about the shows overall? I was surprised to find that I enjoyed ‘Romeo and Juliet’ over ‘Richard II’. I was expecting to prefer ‘Richard’. I’ve always thought it to be thematically richer, and I join heartily in with the choir that says that R&J has been done to death. But seeing them on back to back nights in the same venue, I was reminded of how tightly written ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is. While so much of it has passed in to cliche, when you put it in the hands of good actors it regains its fire, its acridity and that allows it to earn its whimsy and its romance. It’s a classic for a reason. ‘Richard II’ is still a good play, and Morgan Hooper’s take on Richard was superb, but performed on the small-scale like this, the play gets very close to feeling like a grade-school production of ‘Lord of the Rings’. There are so many minor-to-middling background characters that when you have a cast of eight doubling and tripling up on roles, its impossible to keep track of them all and what their motivations are. Without the sweeping backdrops of the British Isles, the imposing castle-interiors, the epic depictions of the battles, all the speeches feel overblown and hollow. The interactions between dukes and kings and usurpers feels like an episode of ‘Dallas’. Richard’s decline, no matter how well acted, feels self-indulgent and pithy. Compare that to R&J. While it might seem epic at first glance, almost all of the play is intimate, and works very well in a small space. The heart of the story is the scenes alone between the two lovers. And there are no tricks at play in those, just some of, and let’s not be coy about this, the best romantic speeches and dialogue ever put to paper. I said it before, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ seems cliche, but that’s largely because it is the font whence most love cliches spring. It’s a better play than ‘Richard’, and it’s better suited to the space ‘Hamlet Isn’t Dead’ are working in. For those reasons, it is an incredibly solid piece of theatre.
I don’t mean to be too hard on ‘Richard II’. The ‘Hollow-Crown’ speech is still one of my favorites, Morgan Hooper (who I seem to doting on considerably) is rock-solid, and Director Emily C. A. Snyder’s efforts are far from lackluster. But ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is just so much better suited to the elements at play here. David Andrew Laws’ direction suits the action to the word and the word to the action, and fits the whole thing neatly on the small model of the barren Earth that he has been given. He does have the characters hump the scenery a bit more than I like (yes, I get it, the play’s about sex), but I was far more engaged throughout R&J, than I was in ‘Richard’. I don’t normally give out numerate summations, but it’s Halloween and I’m going as Roger Ebert this year. So, I’d give ‘Romeo and Juliet’ 3.5 out of 4, and ‘Richard II’ 2.5 out of 4. Both are decent, but R&J is where the money is.
‘Hamlet Isn’t Dead’ will be performing ‘Richard II’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in rep through to November 22nd at the Westbeth Artists Community. Tickets are $20 per show, or $32 to see both. Full show schedule and details available at hamletisntdead.com.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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