If Shakespeare imagined what future productions of Romeo and Juliet might look like, chances are he never envisioned Romeo as a garbage can. And yet, director and writer Neal Freeman and puppet designer Michael C. Malbrough have turned the Bard's best-known lover into a tubby puppet constructed from a stout trash bin. This Romeo doesn't make a peep during Fatboy Romeo, an awkwardly abridged pop-culture reinvention of his story; instead, he flips open his hinged jaw and eats everything in sight. Freeman's concept is solid—a mission to expose America's cultural gluttony through an archetypal tale. Here, Juliet is a trashy-looking narcissist, her cousin Tybalt is a "sword lover," and her fiancé Paris is a self-obsessed bodybuilder. A series of media images—including air-brushed advertisements and celebrity photos (Michael Jackson and Britney Spears make appearances)—projected on a small screen provide a backdrop, while bouncy synthesized music underscores each scene.
After setting up these showy components, however, Freeman never brings them into meaningful dialogue. In his program notes, he admits that he never really liked Romeo and Juliet much, citing the broadly drawn characters and lack of subtlety. But in Fatboy Romeo he only recycles and reinforces this stereotypical, overblown behavior. He seems to want to teach us something about the dangers of overconsumption and cultural greed, yet the show's intended satire never coheres. While individually well defined, the puppets and projections never achieve revelatory interaction.
The narration is gamely performed by Danielle Thorpe and Patrick Toon, who voice the characters. Three puppeteers animate Malbrough's designs, which range from hand puppets to what looks like a coagulation of Barbie dolls glued on a stick. The Romeo puppet is particularly inventive, and the infamous Montague wears sneakers as well as a heavy set of jowls that age him well beyond what we expect. (To cement the discrepancy, Leonardo DiCaprio, who played Romeo on film, appears onscreen during Romeo's entrance.) Eleven-year-old Emma Park-Hazel introduces the scenes and skips around the set. She's certainly pert and playful, if purposeless.
Much of the problem comes from Romeo's silence. Impassive and unblinking, he is the ultimate ugly American consumer, impervious to feeling on his single-minded quest to feed himself. Without a voice, however, he becomes like the hundreds of people we see on the street every day, silently cramming things into open mouths. Freeman might want to consider pulling a bit of humanity from the rubbish.