TWO DOORS THEATRE
FLAGGING THEATRE FROM COAST TO COAST
FRIDAY, MARCH 11, 2016
I am always a little reticent when I happen upon a Shakespeare reimagining that seems just a little too offbeat to be viewed sober. Still I am always up to hear someone’s take on “Romeo & Juliet.” My wife, the accomplished Shakespeare actress, cringes, when she hears someone speak of true love “like Romeo and Juliet.” As she reminds me, these crazy kids knew one another less than 24 hours before tying the knot and sacking up. Moreover when anyone rips this story from the Middle Ages and into the modern world, the ability for this story to take place gets even more far-fetched. With cell phones and text messaging, this is a story which never would have happened today or only in the most remote service coverage areas of the world. Can you hear me now?
With all that in mind and flask in pocket I recently attended the new play by Laura Hirschberg, directed by DeLisa M. White at the Workshop Theatre in midtown; “Verona Walls.”
This show is about appears about as trippy a telling of “Romeo & Juliet” as you could imagine. “Verona Walls” tells the story of Mercutio and his own difficulties in love PRIOR to the action in the Bard’s original. “Verona Walls” is not some rehashed telling of what we already know. Rather, this is “the story of real love in Shakespeare’s star-crossed city, complete with misunderstandings, perfect happiness, and devastating heartbreak. Classical verse mixes with Star Wars references and Beatles lyrics in this tragicomedy about the lives and loves of Shakespeare’s characters before they got swept up in the Bard’s creation.”
Got that? So the best friend in “Romeo & Juliet” was riffing on Star Wars and Lennon/McCartney before the actual time and place in the original text. I am always eager for new ideas, but from the press materials this seemed to be reaching just a tad.
I got inside the Workshop Theater 4th floor lobby about 10 minutes prior to curtain and they opened the house not long after that. I ambled into the 60-odd-seat black box and Madonna’s classic, “Like a Prayer” was playing. Even though the daytime high temperature had been relatively warm for March the theatre was very chilly. During intermission a gent and I shared an elevator downstairs and he remarked as much to me.
I found my seat and was rocking out to their choice of music before the show. In addition to Madonna there was Bowie’s classic “The Man Who Sold the World” and a song we’d hear again and again tonight; “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”
Still the Workshop Theater was filled on Thursday night with all manner of artists and athletes and their conversation soon became loud enough to drown out the pre-show set list.
The woman sitting down next to me told anyone who’d hear her that she had been writing her opus play for 7 years. “It’s just something I do,” she remarked before leaning into the education system saying they needed more Shakespeare and arts classes. Also there was an athlete guy behind me was in a bigger party talking about hip flexors. The takeaway here is that everyone in the house seemed to have some loose connection to at least a few others. The mood was jovial but I felt a tad out of the loop. Just prior to the lights going out the director came out to speak with her hip flexed friend behind me and began raving about the quality of the set.
The set was an integral component to the scene changes here and this is where Beatles classics, Foo Fighters, and Cheap Trick come into play. For many of the scene changes the three people who were ostensibly the chorus would lead the cast in a musical interlude where they would all sing along to a song like “I Want You to Want Me,” “Everlong,” or several Beatles songs including “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” It was an interesting tool but I question the utility of such scene changes in a black box space. The sets were just okay; the main stage showing when we came in evoked the Berlin Wall perhaps or more to the point, Eric Bogosian’s “Suburbia.” The side of a convenience store, nowhere in particular, where the only thing to keep the kids occupied is to spray paint the walls.
There was some interesting spray painting happening including a “See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil” image with the message WAKE UP ITALY below it. That was a gentle enough nudge to political and social unrest galvanized by an activist minority. There was also an image of a young girls shadow, ponytailed and innocent looking, standing before a young boy shadow. Both have their hands behind their backs; the boy is holding what might be flowers, the girl is holding what looks to be a baseball bat. Subtle.
Also if you’re going to change the set around to “become” the tavern where they were quite often, you’ve got to go all-in and not take shots with empty glasses. Rum is clear, vodka is clear; that can just be water. If you’re having whisky (which they were more than once) then iced tea or cider works well. I just didn’t understand why you had to “show” the bar if it’s just a different setting or why you’d even produce shot glasses if you’re not going to actually drink. I guess I’d just like to see them go that extra step of putting something into the shot glasses or flasks that they air-consumed.
With all that out of the way let’s get into the story. So this is basically the story of what happens before “Romeo & Juliet.” Even though it’s happening in present day with references to things like GPS, talking on cell phones, and so many other modern trappings. The impetus for this night is that Mercutio (Ryan McCurdy)(Romeo’s best friend in the Shakespeare work) is done with love. Much like Ross from “Friends” (or Rachel for that matter), he is finished with the trope of love. I thought first of George Costanza from “Seinfeld,” when the character gave up sex with his at that time girlfriend and became brilliant; but that’s neither hither nor tither. Even though Mercutio is done with love and just isn’t going to participate, his awkward friend Benvolio (listed as “Ben” but I could have sworn they called him “Benvolio at least once) (Mick Bleyer) is hoping to pursue barmaid Mistress Quickly (Christine Verleny). Like a laser Ben zeroes in on the very eager Mistress Quickly and the two fall in fast love. They beckon her often from the bar; and her name is Quickly.
Enter Romeo (Jacob Owen) the svelte Casanova (dare I call him a “Romeo”?) of the group, he’s got a favor to ask of his dear heartbroken friend Mercutio; he needs a wingman. His latest love is Rosaline (Lauren Riddle) and she’s got a cousin Alyssa (Rachel Flynn). As we learn, no matter his present state of mind, Mercutio can’t let his friend down. How could you not? I mean this guy Jacob Owen looks like ginger Justin Timberlake; I wanted to hang out with him after the show! For Mercutio though it’s all about honor, friendship, and these bonds that can’t be broken. During the first half of the show he says as much to Alyssa about why he’s never travelled further than Verona. So he probably shouldn’t push too fast to get in on the sequel to this one.
For the purposes of modern discussion Mercutio and Alyssa equate loosely to TV’s Ross and Rachel. Alyssa has more of the wanderlust spirit in her where Mercutio wants simply to exist in his perpetual present. As a performer McCurdy evokes a deep brooding in his apparent conflicted mindset, restless and unhappy in his present state while still not wanting any change. While “Romeo & Juliet’s” original character is hotheaded and bored of his friend’s sunny outlook towards life, McCurdy plays this Mercutio with a deeper dourness that brought to mind the characters Hamlet or even Richard III.
Flynn introduces us to Alyssa and seems to be going through her own change. While out of one side of her mouth she is stridently independent and still wants to get out and see the world, she also seems to realize the limitations of that attitude and is queerly drawn to the strident Mercutio. Has Cupid landed his mark? It doesn’t take long to begin that ride.
Verleny and Bleyer are both accomplished performers in their own tertiary roles as Mistress Quickly and bashful Ben. From the get-go Ben seems primed for a change of scenery. Still much like the Benvolio character in “Romeo & Juliet,” Ben is interested in keeping the peace and making sure all remains fair in Verona. While Quickly doesn’t appear ready to physically go anywhere, she also appears eager for whatever may come from her admirer.
Riddle has done the best she can with a character that seems ripped from a TMZ headline. The character of Rosaline is a bit of a slut and shows off her true colors pretty quickly. Owen is the light on the stage and really should be more aptly paired with Flynn. In fact one of the real puzzles for my mind, if he is so quick to fall in and out of love, is why he even gave Rosaline a second look when he met her lovely cousin Alyssa.
Matthew Russell, Ben Sumrall, and Liz Wasser are all competent barflies in this play but are grossly underused. Wasser and Russell do a fine job singing and playing instruments when called upon but their parts in the story are minimal. Their virtually always being onstage though reminded me of the homeless and drug addicted chorus characters in “Rent.” All that needed to happen for a true bit of mind-bending comeuppance is for one of the three of them to pick up a squeegee and spout, “honest living, honest living.”
While it may not be sure what it is; history or comedy; drama or musical; “Friends” or “Rent;” “Verona Walls” is a refreshing take on classical themes. While I may have gone on at some critical length, this genre of multimedia play has real promise.
“Verona Walls” is a play about hope, opportunity, promise, change, the bonds of family, and the ties of lifelong friendship. It’s about holding on and letting go. With cell phones. And slow motion Japanese kickboxing. With moves which look like they were gleaned from “Mortal Combat.” And Beatles songs. And Foo Fighters. But I could see Dave Grohl in a frilly, Middle Ages style shirt.
At the end of the day what’s most important is how the audience took to the material. There were so many jovial hoots and hollers this evening, I felt like I was in British Parliament. Or a Bernie Sanders rally. Because to a modern audience not bound by things like time and place, “Verona Walls” is a lot of fun! So while it’s still running, come on out and enjoy this great escape from the stresses of life. An escape that can whisk you away, through time and space, to another place, off Across the Universe!
POSTED BY JESSE SCHMITT AT 6:27 AM
LABELS: DELISA M WHITE, LAURA HIRSCHBERG, MIDTOWN THEATRE SPACE, OFF OFF BROADWAY, SHAKESPEARE ROMEO AND JULIET, THE WORKSHOP THEATER, VERONA WALLS
LOCATION: 312 W 36TH ST, NEW YORK, NY 10018, USA