Sunday, August 8, 2010

Sunday Night on the Upper West Side: Hudson Warehouse presents "Romeo and Juliet" at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument

This evening we were back at the Sailors' and Soldiers' Monument at West 89th Street and Riverside Drive to see yet another intelligent and accomplished production from Hudson Warehouse, a Romeo and Juliet set within the current (and ancient) conflict in Afghanistan, directed by the endlessly inventive Nicholas Martin-Smith.

By placing the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets in a war-torn realm in which long-standing blood feuds between clans and ethnic groups hold sway, this Romeo and Juliet, in the director's words, allows the work "to dig deep into the savagery of these two families."

Here, the Montagues are the American military. Romeo, his commanding officer Montague, and Friar Lawrence and the rest of Romeo's companions, are dressed in soliderly camoflage, dogtags, and combat boots.

The Capulets, meanwhile, are dressed in traditional Afghan attire: for the men, variously, stylized versions of the cape, caftan, salwar kameez, turban, keffiyeh and Karakul black lamb hat; for the women - Juliet, her mother Lady Capulet, and the Nurse, in public this means a version of the burqa, while in the sanctuary of their home, in Juliet's case a long, flowing dress - and a lot less, once she and Romeo are intimate.

The culture clash between the Montagues and Capulets is highlighted by other differences, and it's always clear that we're in a war zone in a place of endless war.

This is the first Shakespeare in the park production where we noticed the actors ever acknowledge the air traffic overhead; when one of the helicopters that occasionally fly over Riverside Park during performances whirred overhead, Romeo at one point looked up, suggesting that in this military conflict, this noisy intrusion is both routine and threatening.

Mercutio, the most transgressive character in the drama, is an American who's gone native a bit. Played with gusto by Tyler D. Hall, who was so good in last season's Hamlet and last month's Cyrano, the wildly erratic Mercutio remains shirtless beneath a Middle Eastern cape, wearing red-lensed sunglasses. He's disgusted with the conflict, and you get the feeling he would prefer to be anywhere else - surfing in southern California, say, or at a downtown club - and both his fanciful, almost psychedelic Queen Mab speech, and upon his fatal injury at the blade of Tybalt, his repeated "plague on both your houses" seem informed by weariness of unending war.

Of course Romeo and Juliet also transgress. Their love-at-first-sight meeting at the Capulet ball and the forbidden nature of their mutual attraction and acting on it seems more dangerous because of the setting; the stakes are higher in this fierce and fiery land.

The constant violent deaths give context to the killings of Mercutio and Tybalt; when the Capulets come running and beat their breasts in anguish at the death of their nephew Tybalt (played by a fiery, fanatical Gustavo Obregon, someone you can easily envision as a suicide bomber), it echoes countless photos we've seen of Middle Eastern family members so publicly mourning violent, senseless deaths of their young ones. Yet even where cycles of violent retribution seem to prevail, romantic passions - and genuine love - can bloom in unlikely places.

The narration of the play, both the prologue and epilogue, standing on the periphery, is Friar John (Drew Rosene, who also was the genius costume designer), whose usual small part as Friar Lawrence's messenger here is expanded, and Friar John seems to be the only person who represents the outside world; he looks like a foreign correspondent, flown in from London or Paris, trying to make sense of the madness he's observing.

The Prince here, played to a saturnine fare-thee-well by Jesse Michael Mothershed, seems to be a Western-installed military governor. He wears a suit and tie, or when interrupted at leisure, a polo shirt and casual-Friday slacks. He speaks with annoyance at having been brought in from a more civilized place to preside among such barbarians.

And both sides seem barbaric. The usually gentle Friar Lawrence is played in a brilliant turn by Friar Lawrence is a military man, with the mid-South drawl of a Marine drill sergeant; he and Hamlet typically exchange salutes, and if he's a man of God, it's as a Southern Baptist no-nonsense military chaplain. It was a terrific performance.

The apparent commanding officer of the soldiers' unit, Lord Montague (Vince Philip), is gruff and distracted, and the ground troops - Nike DeVita as Benvolio (with a black death's-head heavy metal t-shirt) and J.T. Maloy as Balthasar (Special Forces?) - are Midwestern or Southern Americans who look like they've given up on ever getting out of this bloody madhouse and act accordingly.

Valerie O'Hara, who was so good last weekend as Roxane's duenna Marguerite in Cyrano, plays a similar role here, as Juliet's Nurse. But her performance in Romeo and Juliet is much different: the Nurse, though she may complain a lot and act the fool, seems to be both wise and aware of her own genuine competence. Even when veiled, she's an open book.

Hudson Warehouse mainstay David Palmer Brown, a gifted actor whom we enjoyed so much last weekend as DeGuiche in Cyrano and last summer as Polonius in Hamlet, excels as a Lord Capulet with a medieval mindset; we got the feeling he'd hardly hesitate to kill his own daughter for the sake of family honor.

Amanda Renee Baker, as his wife, seemed very much a woman of her faith and region, alternately mournful and commanding.

There was so much about this production to admire. It began raining during the scene in which Juliet is notified of Tybalt's slaying and Romeo's banishment, and a number of people started leaving as they got wetter. But mercifully, the rain stopped just like that after a few minutes, and we felt lucky to be able to move up (down, actually, on the steps) for a better seat.

As the two lovers, Amanda Ochoa and George K. Wells were moving and utterly believable. They're both baby-faced enough to convey the innocence of adolescent passion and its impulsive nature.

There's a genuine sweetness to their moments together. Romeo drops the facade he sometimes wears among his fellow soldiers - he's a nervous smoker - and Juliet, her veil removed, reveals a deep generosity in her love.

Romeo's fatal fight at Juliet's tomb with Paris - Lorenzo Villanueva gives a subtle performance as a boyish count who feels he has to adopt the role of a future warlord - dreadfully compounds the awfulness here, and Romeo knows it. Juliet's suicide, and Romeo's, came very close to being averted, but Peter (Jerry Mouse Nwosuocha) and Balthasar (J.T. Maclay) dither on their respective sides: in this impulsively vicious land, it's probably functional to delay in most cases but of course here it's fatal.

At the end, Montague and Capulet, chastened by the deaths of their young, raise their arms to signal an end to the senseless violence. But even as the Prince proclaims that the tragedy has weirdly led to the accomplishment of his mission to pacify Verona, it is hard not to have lingering doubts that peace is at hand.

This was a remarkably timely and brilliant production by director Nicholas Martin-Smith, the Hudson Warehouse cast and crew, and the play continues over the next three weekends in August.

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