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LETTERS TO EDITOR
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A CurtainUp Review
Romeo and Juliet
By Jacob Horn
The Lear deBessonet–directed production now in its "sit-down" run at the Public's Shiva Theater has spent the last three weeks touring the city, setting up in various unorthodox spaces and unable to rely on special technical components. By necessity, it features a small cast, spartan lighting and scenery, and a heavily abridged script—over 12,000 words were cut from the original text. Despite these limitations, or maybe because of them, the Mobile Unit offers a nimble and engaging Romeo and Juliet with the potential to draw in Shakespeare devotees and newbies alike.
The minimal production design makes it easy to appreciate the performances offered here, including a Romeo (Sheldon Best) and Juliet (Ayana Workman) who feel appreciably genuine and earnest. They capture the youthful excitement and impetuousness of the couple's hyper-speed relationship in a way that feels modern, relatable, and direct. This is enhanced by the Shiva's intimate quarters. In the space, subtle physical and vocal cues play a large role in interpreting Shakespeare's text and offer assistance to those less comfortable with the poetry.
Indeed, grappling with the language is an obvious challenge for a production so consciously concerned with accessibility. The abridgment of the text, while likely first and foremost motivated by time constraints, has the effect of distilling the content so that it is perhaps more easily followed. A viewer familiar with the script may feel an occasional sense of loss for a removed passage, and the brisk pacing combined with the cast's high energy can feel the slightest bit hurried, but the cuts can hardly be said to compromise the storytelling.
The whole cast uses their body language, tone, and mannerisms to elucidate parts of the dialogue or recover some of the emotional depth that can get lost when a passage has been cut. The well-executed supporting work of seasoned performers Maria-Christina Oliveras, who doubles as the Nurse and the elder Montague, and David Ryan Smith, whose primary roles are Lord Capulet and Friar Lawrence, are especially enjoyable to watch.
There's more to making Shakespeare accessible than just ensuring the language is easily comprehensible, of course. For those looking for a laugh, the production takes special care to celebrate the humor within the script. If you're looking for action, the play still has its fair share of combat. Audiences seeking more musical fare will appreciate the inclusion of original music by violinist Marques Toliver that blends sounds from Shakespeare's time and ours.
Sure, there are places to nitpick. Some of the costumes and props feel a little too "Let's put on a show"-y such that they stand out where they should blend in. The music is usually a nice complement, but where modern lyrics have been added (sparingly, it should be said), they can sound a bit too far from the rest of the language, and their inclusion risks sending the message that the Shakespeare's language requires a modern translation.
But such quibbles feel pretty insignificant when you consider what this energetic, friendly, and lively production gets right. With its recent streak of launching Tony Award winners, the Public has shown itself to be a prime incubator for the next big thing, but productions like this one remind us that it can still do quite a job with the older pieces, too.
Further, the noble intentions here are just as admirable as the production itself. Romeo and Juliet continues the Public's well-established commitment to diversity both on stage and in audiences. The message that Shakespeare belongs to everyone—even those without money for theater tickets and those whose circumstances prevent them from lining up at the Delacorte every summer—is a powerful one.
Meanwhile, for more seasoned theatergoers who may start to take the Bard for granted, the Mobile Unit R&J shows how this play from hundreds of years ago can deeply resonate with so many different people today, regardless of life circumstances. And that's a strong reminder that Shakespeare's canonical position is absolutely justified.