Hip-hop music from the nearby baseball diamond wafts into Verona. A stray tabby and a cloud of fireflies crowd its lanes. At “Romeo N Juliet,” a free performance staged in an amphitheater at Marcus Garvey Park by the Classical Theater of Harlem, the distractions of an uptown summer evening compete with a centuries-old tragedy.
At first, it seems as if the director, Justin Emeka, were going to integrate the vitality of the surrounding streets into Shakespeare’s poetry. The show opens with a rejiggered prologue, which announces: “Two families that are one and the same/Had a major beef going with their family names/It was in fair Verona where we’re setting the scene.” This Verona, it turns out, is a place of hoodies, high tops and soca music.
Mr. Emeka’s update isn’t nearly as precisely envisioned as Baz Luhrmann’s film version, but it’s a good deal more lively and specific, at least initially, than the Orlando Bloom star vehicle that played on Broadway last season. Its early scenes have a keen energy, combining the verse with dance and promising a resonant interpretation. And why not? It’s not as if a tragedy lamenting gang violence and cheering teenage lust lacked relevance.
But once the story ramps up, the momentum sags. Mr. Emeka has made substantial cuts in the play, but hasn’t otherwise altered the text, barring a few exclamations, like the nurse’s “Ay, give me some tequila!” (Or maybe that’s in some very bad quarto.)
Though the actors are spirited, few can activate the iambs. (Zainab Jah’s Friar Laurence, here played as Sister Laurence, a conjure woman, is a notable exception.) A rickety sound system and an incessant soundtrack make much of the dialogue hard to hear. Despite considerable good will, from artists and audience both, the show becomes a schlep from death to death. Even the dancing, at first so exciting, wears out its welcome.
Natalie Paul has the makings of a sweet Juliet, Sheldon Best a tender Romeo, but the production never really allows their relationship to develop. It also rarely allows them to appear fully clothed. You may find yourself worrying less about the characters’ star-crossed fate and more about the actors’ mosquito-bitten midriffs. Now there’s a tale of woe.
READ THE FULL REVIEW AT THE NEW YORK TIMES