Lifting the story line of Romeo and Juliet, something Shakespeare himself did, is certainly legit. Writing a prequel—focused on the galloping good times of the Montague boys a week before the traditional star-crossed lovers meet—starts as a thin premise, but playwright Laura Hirschbergtakes a powerful swing at making an original theater piece out of an oft-told-tale. It works. And, it works in the modest digs of the Workshop Theater, four flights up on West 36th Street. Verona Walls comes off as fresh and fun—even clever.
The time frame is scattershot: Capulets and Winston Churchill, cell phones and swords live together within Verona’s walls. Hirschberg must have had many second thoughts and tons of second-guessing to get the madcap match-ups she’s settled on here.
“Strangely enough it all turns out well.”
“I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”
There are not whole speeches appropriated from the original, just the odd line here and there, and to her credit Hirschberg does not take the overworked lines. She does move memorable lines and characters around. Mistress Quickly, a character borrowed from Henry IV, delivers Romeo’s ironic “Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much” to the dying Mercutio. The writer is not shy in her pilferage. She borrows from the best, not just the Bard, but Auden and Lennon.
In Verona Walls, Mercutio (Ryan McCurdy) is the romantic lead, in love with Alyssa (Rachel Flynn). The Montague boys include Romeo (Jacob Owen) and Benvolio (Mick Bleyer), drinking buddies at Mistress Quickly’s pub, and thick in the teasing, ranking, but intense, “basket-of-puppies” friendships young men favor.
McCurdy is quite remarkable. He is the standout in a cast of accomplished performers. He has the diffident wit and edgy silliness a much older John McEnery brought to the role in Zeffirelli’s film (1968). He is artlessly funny. His physical humor is enhanced by his overlong, overlean torso. He is the “artful dodger” early on, the sweetly enraptured swain when he falls, and the heartbroken lover when she leaves. One wonders how such a young actor had time to get so good. Rachel Flynn as Alyssa brings her own intensity. Flynn is absolutely genuine, in the moment, and delicious. Who wouldn’t fall in love with her? Christine Verleny, as Mistress Quickly, is a similarly polished performer.
Playwright Hirschberg’s sense of fun is everywhere. Director DeLisa M. White milks the youthful exuberance of the characters. The young lovers sit on the stage—his long legs encircling her buxom self—tasting the giddy pleasure of their new love. As she worries about his ability to leave the Montague boys for her, McCurdy tips his head back provocatively, assumes a surprising Liverpool accent, and wonders aloud if she’s worried about “breaking up the band. That it, Yoko?” The very best moments inVerona Walls are those that capture the playfulness that goes with youth. Of course, we know they are days away from tragedy.
While there was certainly music in Shakespeare’s tragedies there is a refreshing use of music here. It is used to artfully ease transitions, to be sure, but, more than that, there is an almost-a-musical presence here. Mixing Bowie and Gershwin, rhapsody and rap, bestows a genuine vitality on the music’s presence. It is especially engaging to hear good, true voices unamplified. The music enters and exits, so to speak. Its use is tight, owing to the talents of musical director, Jeff Paul.
The space at the Workshop Theater is, as ever, modest and challenging, and Connor Munion uses every centimeter—the fire exits and the single raked aisle thru the audience. He forces an estate of countless acres onto the postage stamp stage. He puts Mercutio and his love on Verona’s ramparts. The crucial —“a plague on both your houses”—sword fight plays out behind the moveable set pieces that serve many masters.
Polonius’ caution about being neither a borrower nor a lender, delivered as ironic counsel in Merchant of Venice comes to mind here. Hirschberg borrows judiciously while lending new life to a classic.
Verona Walls – by Laura Hirschberg; directed by Delisa M. White
WITH: Mick Bleyer (Ben), Rachel Flynn (Alyssa), Ryan McCurdy (Mercutio), Jacob Owen (Romeo), Lauren Riddle (Rosaline), Matthew Russell (The Bard), Ben Sumrall (The Man), Liz Wasser (The Woman), Christine Verleny (Mistress Quickly).
Designed by ConnorMunion; lighting by Scot W. Gianelli; costumes by Kimberley Jean Windbiel; props by Leslie Kincaid Burby. Jeff Paul is the musical director and Mick Bleyer the fight choreographer. Elizabeth Ramsay stage managed , Robert Bruce Macintosh is the production manager, and Jed Dickson the dramaturge. At the Workshop Theater, 312 West 36th Street, Manhattan. Through March 26th. Running time: 2 hours with one intermission.