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A Romeo for the Rabble

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Elise Kibler and Taylor Myers in the Shakespeare in the Square production of “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.” | JON HESS
Elise Kibler and Taylor Myers in the Shakespeare in the Square production of “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.” | JON HESS

BY DAVID KENNERLEY | The title is “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet” but that matters little to the upstart Shakespeare in the Square theater company, known as SITS. Its latest effort, a revamping of the well-trod staple, often plays like a spoofy comedy. And yes, the comedy is intentional.

This conceit aligns perfectly with this troupe’s penchant for breaking rules and blasting expectations, all in service to making the Bard’s work more accessible to the common folk. Which, if you think about it, was the intent when the plays were first staged in the late 16th century.

If the goal, according to director and SITS cofounder Dan Hasse, is to “blow the dust off Shakespeare’s plays and revive the original bear-baiting, beer-drinking rowdiness of Elizabethan theater,” then consider its mission accomplished. Polished production values, evenness of tone, and cadenced line delivery are not the priority here.

A contrarian troupe revivifies one of the most produced plays of all time

It starts when you enter the austere black-box space at the Gym at Judson and are confronted with a booth selling beer and wine. Cast members are already at work, belting out spirited songs — though instead of Elizabethan ballads, we hear ditties by the likes of David Bowie. A host of sorts repeatedly beckons you to imbibe and enjoy. Calculated casualness is a large part of the evening’s appeal.

Four lucky volunteers are escorted to the prime seats flanking the stage for a more immersive experience, a nod to the viewing gallery overlooking Elizabethan stages. During the Capulet masked ball scene, these VIPs join the revelry onstage and are given a free drink. From time to time, cast members cavort with these and other audience members. The setting is intimate — I counted only 60 seats in the house. This anything-goes spirit is at once genial and inclusive.

Hasse allows his five actors, former NYU acting students who tackle multiple roles with abandon, a wide berth to interpret the iconic characters. Quite a few are played with the winking broadness of sketch comedy. Except for Juliet, female roles are played by men, as originally staged. While some theatergoers will be amused by this madcap approach, others will surely be rankled.

As Romeo, the son of Montague, the strapping Taylor Myers, deftly handles the evolution from lovelorn reject to love-struck husband. Myers’ Lady Capulet is convincing, though he’s less successful delineating his minor roles.

Chris Dooly brings a menacing intensity to the role of Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, as he defends the honor of the House of Capulet, and his Paris makes a tantalizing suitor for the young Juliet.

The lone female cast member, Elise Kibler, portrays 13-year-old Juliet with an alluring blend of innocence and pluck, though is less confident with her secondary roles. In a few weeks, look for Kibler in her Broadway debut, where she appears alongside Elisabeth Moss and Jason Biggs in “The Heidi Chronicles.”

The tireless Jack de Sanz plays Juliet’s nurse for laughs, and he often gets them. Rounding out the cast is Constantine Malahias, who shifts easily from the devoted Mercutio, Romeo’s best bud, to the gruff Lord Capulet.

Forsaking period costumes, designer Liz McGlone mostly opts for everyday garb that appears pulled from the actors’ closets, such as tight black jeans for Myers and Dooly, and a basic black dress for Kibler. Although minor quick-changes help distinguish characters — a corset morphs Romeo into Lady Capulet, thick-rimmed glasses mark Paris — a few more identifiers would have helped.

SITS prides itself on dissecting the First Folio, the definitive version of Shakespeare’s works published in 1623, and restoring original passages and correcting errors often included in modern productions. Accustomed to performing outdoors in Washington Square Park for a shifting, often distracted crowd, this is the five-year-old company’s first official Off-Broadway production indoors. The rough edges, however, are less easily overlooked by a paying audience in a bona fide theater.

Not only is the troupe bent on delivering a good time to theatergoers, they are clearly having a blast themselves. Did actors improvise and crack each other up in Shakespeare’s day? This vibrant albeit warped production has us believing they did indeed.

THE TRAGEDY OF ROMEO AND JULIET | Shakespeare in the Square | The Gym At Judson, 243 Thompson St. at W. Fourth St. | Through Feb. 8: Tue.-Thu., Sat.-Sun. at 8 p.m.; Fri. at 7 & 10 p.m.; Sun. at 2 p.m. | $15-$45 at shakespeareinthesquare.com | Two hrs., 15 mins., with intermission

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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