Ten years ago my theatre director in college told me I wasn’t a “true theatre person” and I laughed it off but secretly I was ashamed. Why would he say such a thing to me? Well the truth is, I’ve never been a big fan of Shakespeare. Not to confuse with a lack of appreciation, I certainly regard the Bard and value his plays, but I never have really gravitated to reading or watching his works.
This being said, I was intrigued and a little giddy when first hearing about R+J, written by Erin Breznitsky and making a guest appearance at the TheatreLab from The Rogue and Peasant Players. Not being a traditional fan, I revel in adaptations. I made sure to go in blind and read nothing about it beforehand wanting to be completely surprised. All I knew to expect was some type of retelling of Romeo and Juliet. This is certainly what I got but not in the traditional sense. The Rogue and Peasant Players have taken on a real challenge by taking what many consider to be the greatest love story of all time and making us question it and in a way; hold up a mirror to our own relationships.
For those that have never been, the TheaterLab is a very small space (I didn’t count but guess maybe thirty, forty seats at the most) with stark white walls, and a set consisting merely of walls with brown paper covering them. I found myself instantly drawn in not knowing what to think. Where was the diner’s setting for a sixties themed version or a cityscape for modern day urban life? Was this not going to be the same story set in a contrived theme? Not at all turns out, in fact there are parts that mock this very same idea.
Without question the highlight of the production (due in part to some excellent staging from director Kelly Monroe Johnston) lies within the first fifteen to twenty minutes where we are engaged in the world of R+J, alone after both dying, they wake to find themselves in the afterlife with nothing around them. They have no real world to reside in anymore and exist solely together. We are reminded that Romeo and Juliet barely knew each other before perishing so we are witness to lovers in love discovering each other for the first time. Tim Dowd brings a youthful charm to R as we can believe that he is a teenager, quick to fight and quick to love. His counterpart, Malka Wallick makes the production. Her J is honest without being obnoxious even when she shows her worst side. Wallick leads the show as you quickly find the play becoming broken into two parts, parts that work with her and parts without her that falter. The story changes from a couple alone to the entrance of a multitude of actors all portraying different characters in Romeo and Juliet. As the story is retold over and over again through different scenarios (themes like we initially expected, often in amusing ways) and costumes (period clothing paired with Toms completely ruining our suspension of disbelief), R+J appear to find themselves feeling confined to each other and begin to fall apart. This is when we begin to see why we’re being taken on this journey. Through the scenes they watch and their ups and downs they find themselves examining true love and what happens after the lust wears off.
If you are looking for something new as a Shakespeare fan or not, stop by and see R+J. Keep an open mind and allow yourself to get lost in the meaning and enjoy the enthusiastic cast and their efforts as they set out to create beautiful theatre. Visit their website at www.RogueandPeasantPlayers.com.
R+J written by Erin Breznitsky and directed by Kelly Monroe Johnston at the TheatreLab 357 W 36th Street NY, NY – Starring Malka Wallick and Tim Dowd as well an ensemble cast of Thomas Leverton, Dee Dee Popper, Breanna Yeary, Sarah Bonner, Anthony Michael Martinez and Christine Seisler – featuring costume design by Kerry Gibbons, production manager Thomas Wood and lighting design by Susannah Baron.