Saturday, July 30, 2011

Saturday Evening in Brooklyn Bridge Park: Theater 2020 / Visions for a New Millennium presents "Romeo and Juliet" at Pier 1's Granite Prospect

This evening we had the joy of seeing the fantastic inaugural production of Theater 2020: Visions for a New Millennium, an innovative, swiftly-paced performance of Romeo and Juliet, from the steps of the Granite Prospect of Brooklyn Bridge Park's Pier 1, with the tragic love story set amid Hindu-Muslim conflict, with New York Harbor, the skyline of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty serving as backdrop.

It was a memorable show with first-rate acting and wonderful use of puppetry, a thrilling debut for the Brooklyn Heights professional theater company and its producing artistic directors, the married team of Judith Jarosz (choreographer here) and David Fuller (director/fight director for this production).

We've seen a lot of free outdoor productions of Romeo and Juliet in the past couple of years: the EBE Ensemble in Prospect Park; the Curious Frog Theatre Company, also in Prospect Park; Hudson Warehouse in Riverside Park; and Smith Street Stage in Carroll Park -- all of which we enjoyed immensely. But the Theater 2020 had its own special magic.

The disadvantage for us was that we were a little tired from rushing from the Carroll Gardens Brave New World Repertory show for our second dose of Shakespeare in one day, and we were more than a little hot from our long walk after taking the F and A trains.

As Judith Jarosz said at the beginning, it might have been better to begin a little later than 6 p.m. on such a hot day. We and other members of the audience held our program or hands over our eyes because of the glare of the sun, and you can see the result in our pathetic photos.

But we wouldn't have traded the experience for anything. Hey, if we weren't so cheap, we could have seen one of the previous eight performances in the air-conditioned English Gothic splendor of Saint Charles Borromeo here in the Heights on Sidney Place. But we would have missed this spectacular backdrop, the view from Brooklyn Heights that one writer called "the most gorgeous cliche in America."

The use of the four puppets was absolutely brilliant. They added an extra appeal to the many kids in attendance but also added to the mysteriously otherworldly feel of what seemed a production ripped from reality's headlines (at home, we saw the front page story in the Sunday New York Times: "Afghans Rage at Young Lovers; A Father Says Kill them Both," about a haram love between a Hazara girl and a Tajik boy).

In this production, there were extraordinary performances by Poonam Basu as a Muslim Juliet and Vanditt Bhatt as Romeo, a Hindu. The chemistry between them seemed palpable from the moment they lay eyes on each other where Romeo and his companions put on keffiyehs to go to Lady Capulet's ball in disguise.

The couple also managed to seem like teenagers, and there were especially nice line readings in the balcony scene, played so that most of us on the lower steps had to look up (and momentarily avoid the sun's glare -- of course, it was Shakespeare who said "Fear no more the heat o' the sun").

The other actors also did superb jobs in establishing their distinct characters. By eliminating the Montagues and Lord Capulet (except as puppets), Brandie Moore as Lady Capulet had to shoulder a good deal on her own. She actually was the most sympathetic Lady Capulet we've ever seen, more caring and devout than either chilly, haughty or distracted; it was a really nuanced interpretation of the role.

The Nurse is a great role, and Lynn Marie Macy resisted the temptation we've seen to ham it up; she was wonderfully quirky and loving and self-involved, but she also had a no-nonsense side that felt refreshing. We also give her props as costume coordinator, as the clothes made a big impact.

Nicholas Pollifrone made a hyperkinetic skinny bundle of energy as Mercutio. His Queen Mab speech, a highlight of the text's poetry for us, was delivered beautifully and so energetically that we thought he could propel himself from the steps into the air with the occasional helicopter above us. A good soul, he seemed either to be slightly stoned or fidgety with ADHD in his dynamic performance.

Perhaps it's our own quirky reading of the text, but we've always liked productions where the actor playing Benvolio seems like the only sensible person in Verona. (Sometimes it's the Prince, but here the Prince was a scary-looking beetled-browed, oversized puppet, an apt ruler for a city constantly on the verge of hysteria.) Marc Andrew Hem Lee didn't disappoint us in his interpretation of Benvolio; we especially caught what seemed to be his thoughts as he reacted to other characters' dialogue as he stood a little bit apart, on the periphery. (Speaking of the periphery, check out the real-life bridal couple passing by on the left in this pic. Sometimes street theater has these wonderful moments of serendipity.)

Like Lynn Marie Macy, Nicholas Pollifrone and Marc Andrew Hem Lee, Justin Bennett, who played Laurence, also worked as a puppeter. And we know that must have been much harder than the seeming effortlessness we saw. Laurence here wears a white Nehru jacket (if we're bribed, we'll show you the photo of an 18-year-old boy wearing one in 1969) with a peace symbol (ditto) as well as a cross. Justin Bennett's performance was quite interesting; to us, he came off with a touch of M*A*S*H's Father Mulcahy and a bit of cluelessness, as if it takes him a few seconds too long to figure out what's going on while he needs to take a few seconds more to think before he starts giving his advice.

Kareem M. Lucas brings muscle to the dual roles of Tybalt and Paris; with the high testosterone level of his performances, it seems like dumb beginner's luck that Romeo manages to kill both characters. As Tybalt, he looks so fierce that you think he could eat Mercutio for breakfast (if he could catch him). His Paris is subtler, but no less ruthless in his interpretation, and having the same actor play both roles (sometimes we've seen actors play both Paris and the Prince) made us think about the connections between the characters of Tybalt and Paris, both of whom are upholding the maladroit current state of affairs in Verona and relations between Hindus and Muslims.

The fight scenes, by the way, are well-staged by the production's director, David Fuller (the choreography, also seamless, was done by Judith Jarosz and Poonam Basu [Juliet]). We also liked the way Hindi and Arabic words were tossed into the dialogue naturally: "salaam alaikum," "inshallah," "karma," "pandit."

This Romeo and Juliet was an auspicious debut for Theater 2020 and its vision (we have difficulty resisting the easy and apt pun). Both Judith Jarosz and David Fuller have a great deal of experience in different aspects of theater production; both were leaders of Theater Ten Ten, the longest consecutively operating Equity theater company off-Broadway.

We're grateful we got to see this terrific show for free at Brooklyn Bridge Park this evening.

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