The Blunt Theatre Company put a very timely twist on its production of Romeo and Juliet. It was set in Baghdad, in the present day, with the Montagues as American soldiers and the Capulets as Iraqi Muslims. The gimmick had its uses, such as when the Montagues sneaked into the Capulets’ masked ball wearing only turbans for disguises, and the depiction of the Chorus as American news reporters (complete with Entertainment Tonight theme song), but it was still only a gimmick and often seemed out of place.
The play had several dance numbers, which used Middle Eastern dance and music. In fact the dancing (choreographed by Nayna Agrawal) was excellent and stood out as one of the production’s greatest assets. A trio of dancers performed during the ball, and then hung around to play bit parts later. Music for the dancing was canned, but the rest of the show was accompanied by live musicians (Richard Kuzami, Amir Naoum Chehade, Maurice Chedid, and Haig Manookian) with musical direction by Richard Kuzami.
The cast didn’t quite live up to the material. The star-crossed couple (Steven Lee Merkel and Dayna Steinfeld) were adequate, but didn’t dazzle, and found themselves upstaged by the likes of Tybalt (Rolando Morales) and Mercutio. Mercutio was well played by Jared Reinmuth, but his traditional Shakespearean performance seemed to put him in a different show altogether (not necessarily a bad thing). Morales ROCKED in his fight with Romeo: in fact, the show’s true highlight was the stage combat (choreographed by Ian Marshall). The set was a multilevel stone stairway that was both wide and very steep. The combatants buckled their swashes all over it, hopping from level to level, practically into the audience’s laps. The afforementioned fight between Mercutio, Romeo, and Tybalt was a Hollywood-quality action scene (though the wooden Japanese Tanto knives used in the fights were out of place).
The Blunt Theatre Company chose La Plaza Cultural as its venue. Because this is an outdoor theatre in a public park, audience members were warned to be ready to face the elements when seeing the show (not to mention deal with a peanut gallery of Lower East Side denizens making smoochy sounds during the balcony scene....) Because of this outdoor setting, there was little use of set; just a few ethnic backdrops and a prayer mat (designed by Nathan Eckenrode), and relatively few props as well. This, combined with the modern costumes (and partially complete military “uniforms”) gave the play the look of just a bunch people in a park.
The Blunt Theatre Company has made an admirable attempt to bring Shakespeare to the masses by modernizing it (and showing it for free in a public park). While it’s nice to see examples of Middle Eastern culture in American theatre during the current political crisis, these Iraqi themes didn’t mesh with the rest of the play and stuck out like a sore thumb, albeit a well-manicured thumb.
(Also featuring: Jimmy Ashmore, Michael Andrews, Wolfen DeKastro, Lucia Dragosh, C. Scott Duprey, Berda Gilmore, Jamal Green, Ladan Kadkhada, Camille Marshal, Franko Pistritto, Debargo Sanyal, Ali Sharaf and Andrew T. Smereck)
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Copyright 2003 Charles Battersby