The first thing you can’t fail to notice upon entering the performance space for Empirical Rogue‘s production of Romeo and Juliet, is the spectacular environment chashama have provided for the company. Formerly a taxi service garage on Jackson Avenue, LIC, the space retains the character of its previous functionalism, but the translation of the environment for its theatrical purpose is all but awe inspiring. This is immersive theatre space at its most captivating. Three very simple arrangements of double rowed seats place the audience right at the edge of the action. Behind them floor to ceiling drapes of canvas enclose the space and focus attention on one corner of the performance area, where a raised office hutch serves as the play’s famous balcony setting. The raw cinder block walls are spectrally painted with fading murals and decorative effects that describe location and contribute atmosphere almost slyly – “Verona” the largest declares boldly, like some pageant-styled vermouth advertisement of the Forties. A raw building scaffold sits easily in the space, spotlights glow in constellation behind canvas walls, and a wide grill metal gate recalls you to the actuality of the location. Before the drama has begun you want to take your hat off to production designer, Dante Olivia Smith, muralist, Adam Fujita, and producer/director, Tim Eliot. This is one of the most intelligent and graceful set designs I have come across.
And very happily, all of its cleverness and lightness of touch is nimbly echoed in the performance that follows of Shakespeare’s most famous story of the tragic, young, star-crossed lovers. Eliot has honed down the play to use just four actors, each necessarily playing several roles. The choreographing of characters to scenes requires rapid-fire role changes, asking both performers and audience to stay alert and keep their wits in order to follow the action. Rudimentary costume changes are effected in seconds behind the scenes, and on this first night of performance all ran effectively as actors disappeared through narrow gaps in the scenery to emerge moments later in alternate character from another partition. Timing is precise and impressive. Having the same actors portray different genders and different generations is engrossing to watch, but also throws into relief contrasts in the story’s culturally imposed roles and restrictions. Jacob Martin takes both the role of the impassioned and reckless Romeo, as well as that of the socially constrained and conservative Lady Capulet, Juliet’s mother. All of the actors can be commended on the stamina which they bring to bear in sustaining the charged atmosphere, and it is a special note of success that I found myself, while watching the four actors in scene together, expectant of the arrival of yet another. The sense that another character was waiting in the wings was proof of the effectiveness of the illusion they were working so hard to create.
This is a physical production and swordplay (Shad Ramsey) is vigorous and convincing. Creating the sense of a factional melee can be understandably difficult with just four, sometimes three, actors at a time. Eliot’s direction is equal to the challenge and he gives us a delightful note of chaotic confrontation at one point, when a van pulls up outside the garage, headlights blazing, the gate rolls noisily upward, and sword-wielding actors rush in. The illusions of a masqued ball and of populated public space are similarly creatively suggested with a minimum of effects and participants.
If there is a villain in the production then it is undoubtedly the acoustics in this raw space. Intimate exchanges between characters can get lost and, as there is much active space in use, the same may be said when actors are turned away from the audience. As Romeo, Martin projects the most effectively, conjuring youthful vitality and a character who is touchingly over-taken by new passions and the will to be an honorable man. There were moments though when I wished he would modulate his delivery more; not everything the young lover says is an exclamation. Susannah Hoffman as Juliet gets it right, marrying the charge to the lines. This is a full throttle performance with great range, taking us from girlish excitement all the way to womanly anguish. Her Mercutio is equally impressive, startling even as she projects a complex braggart and hot head who seems to be masking a woundedness at Romeo’s attentions towards women. Sarah Baskin gets great play out of the Nurse, driven by sympathy to imprudence, she is all attentiveness and want of wisdom. To Doug Chapman fall the less meaty roles of Benvolio and Friar Laurence, well-intentioned voices of temperance, and he dithers and agonizes leanly. As an ensemble these actors come together most effectively and in moments of pitch, the language and acting engender a white hot intensity that melts your sense of time and place, all the poise and cleverness, any need of a suspension of disbelief. It’s powerful.
Fine touches abound. Live music is featured in the form of Becca Bernard, a solo cellist, sitting all-but-not-quite out of sight behind wooden pallets in one corner. The wardrobe (Summer Lee Jack) is a hybrid of contemporary wear and historical costume notes, lithely at play with a notion of dress-up and realism. In a similar vein, features of the scene-setting mural decoration archly confess to their own artificiality, their recently applied theatricality. But there is a lyricism amidst this self-consciousness. In the one instance when the space is plunged into complete darkness, a small, plastic night light that has been glowing unnoticed throughout the action, becomes the sole point of light. Keen-eyed observers might note it is a figure of the Virgin, the mother of all sorrows, herself a complex symbol of themes that underscore the drama. Utterly thoughtful, innovative, bold and tempered, Empirical Rogue and Tim Eliot have produced a memorable version of this much played Shakespearean favorite, itself the mother of all tragic romances. All one can say is Bravo! Bravo!
Romeo and Juliet Directed by Tim Eliot chashama 26-15 Jackson Avenue New York, NY 11101 United States
May 19, 2012 – Jun 10, 2012 8:00 PM Tickets: $15.00 – $18.00 Click Here to purchase