William Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet early in his career, and it’s one of his most frequently performed works. During the past year, New York City has seen two high-profile presentations of the play, both of which were handsomely outfitted and disappointing. The youthful artists of What Dreams May Company (WDMC) are currently offering a frugal production of Romeo and Juliet that strikes fire where the efforts of those more affluent troupes fizzled.
Soon to observe its fourth anniversary, WDMC has been producing streamlined, penny-pinching Shakespeare in a tiny, upstairs space on West 133rd Street. For Romeo and Juliet, the company has moved to larger, though still modest, street-level quarters in the East Village. Scenic designer Joseph Sebring retains the black-box aesthetic of WDMC's Harlem productions. Director Chris Rivera and his 16 actors are making effective use of several additional square yards of playing area, especially in the soirée at which the lovers first encounter each other and the violent scenes, which have been skillfully choreographed by fight director Nicole Schalmo and assistant Justin Kirck.
Rivera is working with a radically uneven cast, whom he guides through the play's complicated text with an assured directorial hand. His greatest asset is Jonathan Emerson, seen in 2013 as Macduff, the moral center of WDMC's Macbeth, and, earlier this year, as an unnervingly sour Don John in Much Ado About Nothing. Emerson has transformed himself, both in affect and physical appearance, from those prior roles. His Romeo isn't far beyond adolescence and, obsessed with romantic notions, he's at once sophomoric and sympathetic. With Juliet, he's earnest and shy; but, when he's in the company of his buddies (Casey Noble as Benvolio and Nicole Schalmo as Mercutio), a swaggering machismo testifies to his youthful insecurity. Emerson's every stance and gesture, though unmannered and seemingly unstudied, contributes to an arresting, thoroughly believable interpretation of one of English literature's most familiar characters.
As Juliet, Christina Sheehan embodies young love’s impatience in interesting ways: she’s audacious and, at times, downright pushy. There's a naughtiness about her that suggests she learned a lot that Renaissance maidens weren’t supposed to know from the bawdy jokes and unbridled recollections of her Nurse (Clare Solly). In Solly's hands, that Nurse (often treated as an Elizabethan stock comic) is full of verve and lusty humor with an undertone of profound melancholy. In the last moments of the play, Solly conveys complex grief -- she has previously spoken of the untimely death of her own daughter, Susan, and it's clear that, for her, the news of Juliet's sorry fate disinters all the pain of that earlier loss.
Since its founding in 2011, WDMC has been committed to counteracting the limitations of the Shakespearean canon by creating on-stage opportunities for women. Schalmo, who was a hyper-sexual Lady Macbeth last year, demonstrates her range as Mercutio, cousin of the Prince of Verona and close friend to Romeo. In Schalmo's nontraditional interpretation, Mercutio is a brazen, seemingly carefree, aristocratic young woman capable of becoming serious as soon as she's drawn into the Montague-Capulet feud. Schalmo proves herself adept at broad comedy, drunk scenes, and dying in clear view of the audience; and, in her duel with Tybalt (Marcus Watson), she demonstrates some graceful moves and convincing sword-handling.
On opening night, director Rivera stepped into the role of Friar Lawrence, replacing Matthew Healy who had been injured in an accident. Youthful in appearance, Rivera plays the good Friar as a well-meaning soul who fled the world for the monastery before gaining sufficient experience to make him a reliable aid to the hapless lovers seeking his guidance. In the second half of the performance under review, Rivera relied on a script disguised as a prayer book; both on script and off, he gave an assured, insightful reading of this pivotal character.
WDMC, which produces in association with the nonprofit Queens Shakespeare, is adept at operating on a shoestring. Sebring's simple scenic design for Romeo and Juliet utilizes three revolving panels for entrances and exits, boldly colored wall hangings by painter Matthew Emerson, and a couple of scarlet draperies. Like the set, the costumes (primarily white and black) feature bright red accents. Costuming is credited to Rivera but the actors are dressed in items that could come from their own closets. The Verona that this production conjures, like the themes of Romeo and Juliet, is at once timeless and up-to-date.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, presented by What Dreams May Co. in association with Queens Players, runs through Dec. 20 at The Kraine Theater (85 East 4th Street between the Bowery and 2nd Avenue). It runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7 p.m. Tickets: $18. Running time is two hours and 20 minutes including one intermission. Tickets may be purchased by visiting http://wdmcstarcrossed.brownpapertickets.com or calling 1-800-838-3006.