The Public Mobile Unit’s production of Romeo and Juliet took a roundabout path to the Shiva Theatre on Lafayette Street, where it plays through 1st May. After visiting schools and prisons in all five boroughs (the mission of the Mobile Unit is to take free Shakespeare to people who can’t wait in line at the park every summer). Lear deBessonet’s scrappy production of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedy has returned home to the Public.
But the fact that the set is little more than blocks, balloons, and a boom box should not be taken to mean that scant attention has been paid to how things look. Andrea Hood’s costume design is impeccable, with contemporary outfits that might not look entirely out of place in Williamsburg. The physicality is, without exception, lovely and perfectly fitting, from Benoit-Swan Pouffer’s choreography of the Capulets’ ball to the more interpretive interludes between Romeo and Juliet at their wedding and wedding night. The famous balcony scene, with a rolling ladder standing in for that notorious set piece, is as elegant and touching as I have ever seen it. Sheldon Best and Ayana Workman generate an enchanting combination of attraction and innocence. Thomas Schall’s fight choreography is sharp, fast, and vicious, and the actors— especially Jorge Eliézar Chacón’s Tybalt— carry it out fearlessly. His and Mercutio’s (Max Woertendyke) fight seethes with arrogance and energy.
Paired with these electric sights are fitting sounds, with live accompaniment and singing performed and composed by Marques Toliver, primarily on the violin. Toliver bookends the play with sung renditions of the epilogue and prologue, setting a compelling and high-energy bar that the opening scenes easily match. The equivalent of Shakespeare’s first two acts (though the whole play is only one act here, and a brisk 90 minutes) are funny and joyful, a perfect prelude to the tragedy that is to follow.
There is, however, less fervor and richness in the actors’ use of the verse itself, with the result that some scenes felt strangely rushed— often scenes that had not, in fact, been markedly trimmed by deBessonet. But though often wisely cut, and very generously trusting the audience to follow the story without an excess of exposition, the adaptation did not weight the two title roles equally, to the detriment of the play as a whole. Juliet’s scenes were conspicuously more frequently victim to sharp trimming than Romeo’s, and though Workman’s Juliet is beautiful and charming, like the production overall, her touchingly innocent and perfectly graceful physicality were not matched by an equally robust grasp of Juliet’s incredibly difficult poetry, or the narrative and intellectual heavy-lifting the character has to do when Romeo is banished and the engine of the play drops suddenly into her hands. A startling number of Romeo and Juliets make the mistake of underestimating the difficulty of Juliet as a role, but it is she who must be the true heart and brain of the play, especially in its latter half.
The characters surrounding the lovers are uniformly strong, and each actor has at least one moment to shine across their multiple roles. Woertendyke’s Mercutio and Danny Rivera’s Benvolio make perfect foils to Best’s dreamy Romeo, their boisterous spirits always edged with the promise of the violence that is to follow. The Capulets are also worthy of mention, more than meeting the challenge of the difficult domestic scenes leading up to the climax. Mahira Kakkar (Lady Capulet) and Maria-Christina Oliveras (Nurse) are at their best when struggling to put on a cheerful front for Juliet in the face of Lord Capulet’s (David Ryan Smith, doubled as a moving Friar Lawrence) tyranny.
A theatre in downtown Manhattan is obviously not where this show was designed to be seen. And some might argue that the Mobile Unit has different goals than a traditional theater approaching the same Shakespeare play and thus should be discussed under different terms— but why should it? The essence of Joe Papp’s vision was that Shakespeare, as-is, belongs to everyone. And the Mobile Unit upholds this vision admirably. Flawed though it is, the production is never condescending, and it is more successful than many at tapping into the various wellsprings of energy— love, lust, joy, friendship, violence— that set all of Verona’s citizens, not just the lovers, onto a collision course with tragedy.
Romeo and Juliet is on in the Shiva Theater of the Public Theater, NYC until 1st May 2016. Click here for tickets.