Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tuesday Evening in Carroll Gardens: Smith Street Stage presents "Romeo and Juliet" at Carroll Park

We took the G train ten stops from Williamsburg to Carroll Gardens this evening for the opening of Smith Street Stage's truly lovely production of Romeo and Juliet in Carroll Park.

Directed shrewdly by Robbie Sublett, this Romeo and Juliet is a bit of a tour de force since it's performed seamlessly with just five - count 'em, five - talented and versatile actors taking all the roles in Shakespeare's tragedy of young lovers.

Having seen this play performed outdoors twice in the past twelve days by other companies, we're always surprised that each new good production can bring out different aspects or nuances in the text. (As a writer and a literature teacher, we come at Shakespeare more from the text than anything else; as we show every time we write about seeing the play, we don't have much theater background or knowledge other than Harris Sarney's advanced drama classes in our senior year in Midwood in 1967-68.)

What the Smith Street Stage production made new for us in this Romeo and Juliet was the fierce intelligence both behind the text and in the characters. This was a thoughtful, even cerebral, production of the tragedy even though the fight scenes (old fashioned rapiers) were so skillful they stopped passing basketball players from the park frozen in place.

But in the performances, there was an element of self-awareness even when the young characters are acting most rashly, explosively and self-destructively: Tybalt, Mercutio, Benvolio, and of course Romeo and Juliet. The actors' intelligence made the characters seem as if they could envision what would happen five seconds into the future, which somehow caused everything to seem more poignant.

The main action took place by the centerpiece of Brooklyn's third-oldest park, the 1920 World War I Soldiers and Sailors Monument. It was a nice stage, but Carroll Park is pretty noisy on an early summer evening - the play started at 6:30 p.m. - behind the audience at the basketball courts, there were heavy-duty games going on, and since the park is just a few blocks square in the middle of a heavily-trafficked area, there were sirens from police cars, fire engines and ambulances and annoying motorcycles.

But except for a passing helicopter, the one time the actors made the good choice to pause for a moment, they did very well in coping with that. All the outdoor productions have these distractions and both the cast and crew and the audience learn to live with them.

This was the first production where we did see something actively malicious and stupid interfere: someone, from where we and we don't think anyone else could tell, hurled a water balloon onstage in front of the actors playing Romeo and Juliet (and a couple of feet in front of us). We don't know what to say about that except it's really sad and that the Smith Street Stage handled it expertly - which is to say they ignored it (except at the end, when a cast member, in thanking the audience and giving the usual plea for the donations that keep these plays going, said, "I hope nobody got wet.")

That cast member was Jonathan Hopkins, who was truly brilliant as Romeo, and yes, as Lady Capulet. His Romeo, like Beth Ann Leone's Juliet, seemed very 21st-century: they were street-savvy but also seemed more sophisticated than a teenage innocent. They've been around the block and they also radiate, especially in Hopkins' Romeo, a surprising degree of intellect and self-knowledge. It was a pleasure to watch them.

Hopkins, in switching from the role of Juliet's lover to that of her mother, was - like the other cast members - pretty damn amazing. Just watching his hands and feet as the petulant, distracted Lady Capulet was interesting.

Leone as Juliet seemed to have inherited a little of her mother's distractedness, which was an interesting choice, as was the director's choice to have the actors play the balcony scene without an enormous amount of face-to-face dialogue. Juliet sometimes seemed as if she was a little bit elsewhere in her fast-moving mind. Although Romeo kills Tybalt in the heat of passion over Mercutio's death, that action seems measured; in this production, Juliet seemed to us the rasher one of the two and just slightly manipulative.

As a twitchy Benvolio in a hoodie, Leone also proved interesting to watch. The other three actors, taking multiple parts, were a joy. In the beginning we wondered how they were going to pull it off with just a cast of five, but they did so quite effectively, in part by eliminating some scenes, particularly those of Paris and the Prince. (Lord Capulet arranges Juliet's marriage in a phone conversation with Paris, and you realize how little you miss the latter's replies; Paris and the Prince are pretty much banished from the end of the play, and nothing seemed lost.)

When we left, we told Sean Dillon, "You were great," and we meant it. As the Nurse, he was incredible, resisting caricature, very funny but it wasn't just the obvious drag (hairy legs, etc.) but a poignancy that came from the Nurse's character. With his fan (actually pretty handy on a warm night), the Nurse was a wonder: this was a pretty smart Nurse, loyal and easily annoyed, she seems in some ways to have more common sense than anyone in Verona. Dillon also made a fine business-like Prince in early scenes and also played Balthasar.

Joby Earle was equally effective as a talky, impulsive but always intelligent Mercutio. By the middle of his Queen Mab speech, he seems to know he should stop talking but plows ahead because, well, because he can and he damn well will - and this Mercutio likes to needle even the friends he so obviously cares for.

The actors work really well in these scenes. Earle's Lord Capulet was debonair, a decent guy who's found himself in a position just slightly above his capabilities. He also played Friar John in the one scene with the hapless messenger.

We loved Sam Rosenberg's dithering, nature-loving Friar Laurence, played with a yarmulke and we guess a Mexican-style poncho or maybe a serape (that, given his headgear, couldn't help seeming like a tallit). This Friar was funny, and like some of the other characters here, seemed sometimes to be thinking of something else, like one of his trees that needed pruning.

It was neat to see him morph into the cocky Tybalt - whose aggression always seems well-motivated - as well as the Capulets' incompetent servant.

Ruark and Blaise Downey worked really well as the musicians, coming onstage at the play's beginning and dominating its brilliantly conceived conclusion. The music was subtle but no less vital to getting the play to end on a high note. (By the way, as it got later, it got much quieter; although there were still a lot of basketball games, they just don't make as much noise in the dark.)

Director Robbie Sublett performed wonders with this production. Stage manager was Cynthia Vazquez; fight designer, Jessica Weiss; costumes by Laura Waringer; and publicity by Victoria Haynes. We showed up on Monday night, only to find it raining hard when we got out of the G train, so last night's opening was, obviously, postponed. We're really glad we came back.

Smith Street Stage's Romeo and Juliet will be playing tomorrow through Friday and then again August 26-28 next week. The new Brooklyn company's artistic director, tonight's Juliet and Benvolio, Beth Ann Leone, said the challenge of doing this play was "it's so familiar, that there's a risk it'll become commonplace, which would be an incredible shame."

She needn't have worried. This Romeo and Juliet is anything but commonplace, and it's definitely worth a trip to Carroll Park whether you're in the neighborhood or anywhere you can get an F or G train.

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