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A CurtainUp Review

Romeo and Juliet
By Les Gutman

Is there no pity sitting in the clouds,
That sees into the bottom of my grief?
---Juliet, Act III, Scene 5
Moonwork Theater Company, that annual influx of Shakespearean invention that brought us a media-crazed Richard III a few years ago, and then a staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream that might have been cooked up by Flo Ziegfield and Busby Berkley, has now returned with Romeo and Juliet. (It's a choice of some significance to the company, which started its creative journey with this play in 1994). For those who think they've seen everything this play has to offer, or that, after the recent double whammy of the Dicaprio/Danes movie version and the successful off-Broadway show, R&J, it's been tinkered with enough, think again.

For starters, this is likely the most visually stimulating Romeo and Juliet you'll ever see. Is that a surprise? Well, the press materials indicated that this production would be performed without sets or props, so yes it is. The curtain that hides the spartan playing area from our view is an original work of art. A portion of it (which also appeared on the playbill cover) is reproduced above. When it is raised, we indeed see a barren stage, but at its rear, a three-tiered platform onto which director Gregory Wolfe has installed a breathtaking chorus of 22, in flowing white robes and scarves. Why fuss with sets when you have live bodies, especially when they can be clothed in June Wolfe's elaborate costumes, and lit by Jen Acomb's most effective lights? 

One of the joys of Moonwork's productions, evident here, is the sheer size of the casts it employs. In a time when commercial producers flock to plays that call for the smallest number of actors, Moonwork reminds us of what we are missing. And yet you may be surprised, as I was, to learn that Mr. Wolfe has eliminated Romeo's parents from the play and, Rick Blaine notwithstanding, there will not always be Paris: his function has been reassigned to his kinsman, Escalus (Christopher Haas). 

Wolfe has reassigned some sexes as well. Juliet (Monique Vukovic) gets a male nurse (Tom Shillue, who is excellent and seems to be having a lot of fun with this frolic), a shift that breathes a new chemistry into this most fascinating relationship; and Romeo (Gregory J. Sherman) pals around with women here, Mercutio (Anna Cody) and Benvolio (Jennifer Carta). The latter is an idea that never reveals whatever meaningful significance was intended. 

They've set the work in a police state. Escalus has a retinue of "enforcers" (Michael Gould and John Roque). This is another idea of which precious little is made although I can't say there's any harm done. It's also worth noting that Mr. Sherman has staged all of the fight scenes without weapons, so the is a military that depends mostly on martial arts. (And we are witness to more than one fine gymnastics exhibition.)

Performances are generally quite good, if not mind-bogglingly so. Ms. Dukovic is a smart Juliet whose anguish is more palpable because she eschews some more typical, more juvenile choices. Gary Desbian develops her father with a courseness that renders his subsequent rage and grief particularly effective. 

But this is a Romeo and Juliet that will be known more for its grand concept than for its acting, its smaller ideas or even its sometimes impressive design elements. That noteworthy idea, of course, is the chorus that looms over every second of the production. Wolfe calls the members of the chorus "gods," and in that capacity one quickly realizes what he's discovered: they've always been there, these helpless celestial witnesses, the knowing repositories of fate, looking down on what transpires, reacting to it, even try to affect it. If you doubt the sense of this, return to the familiar text and notice, as in the quote above, these hovering presences. 

Wolfe exploits this stunning assemblage relentlessly, giving it lines to recite, settings to evoke and even sound effects to emit. Does it work? Terrifically.
CurtainUp's review of Moonwork's Richard III  
CurtainUp's review of Moonwork's Midsummer Night's Dream 
CurtainUp's review of R&J  

by William Shakespeare 
Directed by Gregory Wolfe 

with Gary Desbien, Anna Zastrow, Mark Elmore, David DelGrosso, Monique Vukovic, Tom Shillue, James O'Connor, Gregory J. Sherman, Anna Cody, Jennifer Carta, Jay Gaussoin, Christopher Haas, Michael Gould, John Roque and Mason Pettit plus a chorus of 22 "gods" 
Set Design: Lowell Pettit 
Lighting Design: Jen Acomb 
Costume Design: June Wolfe 
Music Design and Composition: Andrew Sherman 
Fight Choreography: Gregory J. Sherman 
Choreography: Jena Necrason 
Running time:  2 hours, 30 minutes with  1 intermission 
A production of Moonwork Theater Company
Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th Street (Avs. A/B) (212) 279-4200
Opened June 11, 2000 closes June 30, 2000
Reviewed by Les Gutman 6/12/2000 based on a June 7 performance

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