By William Shakespeare; Directed by Grace Herman-Holland
Produced by The Woolgatherers Theatre Group
Off Off Broadway, Adaptation
Ran through 4.28.19
MITU580, 580 Sackett Street, Brooklyn
by Asya Gorovits on 5.5.19
Meaghan J. Johnson, Brandon Sawhill-Aja, and Samuel Im in Romeo and Juliet: A Party. Photo by Ariella Axelbank.
BOTTOM LINE: The Woolgatherers’ ambitious attempt to make Romeo and Juliet immersive isn’t quite realized, but the performances save the day.
Upon entering Romeo and Juliet: A Party, I am asked to put on one of three stickers indicating how much I am willing to be involved in this immersive production: orange if I just want to sit back and watch, yellow if I want to participate but not in one-on-one interactions and green if I am up for anything. With a green sticker and a drink grabbed from the bar, I make my way to one of the tables scattered around the black box MITU580 theater.
The setting is promising: a three-piece band is playing popular tunes, actors are walking amongst the arriving audience members and the mood is cheery. Finally, Lady Capulet (Katharine Ginna), standing on one of a few checkered platforms planted around the room, taps on her wine glass. The band starts a new song and everybody is invited to dance, some jumping onto the central platform. We are guests at the Capulet Ball and one can even forget for a moment the tragic fate of the star-crossed lovers that are about to meet.
Unfortunately, after the energetic start, the interactive activities soon die out and, at any rate, don’t make much sense in the context of Romeo and Juliet. There is one more party game that we are invited to participate in: we are given cards with questions like What is your favorite breakfast? or What is your favorite weather? and are prompted to mingle until we find our match. As much as it is fun to move around, the purpose of this activity, and the additional dancing that follows, remain ambiguous to me. As soon as Juliet (Sarah Corbyn Woolf) and Romeo (Samuel Im) meet, the audience is forgotten and the play unfolds as in a traditional theatre. Some people are pulled aside by the actors, presumably for the one-on-one experience, but I can only speculate.
As an adaptation of Shakespeare’s beloved tale of the tragic love, this production by the Woolgatherers Theatre Group is successful in many aspects—first and foremost, the performances. Dressed in modern clothes (designed by Melinda Hare), the actors perform with exuberant, youthful energy, delivering the text with playfulness and clarity. Kelley Heyer, playing the Nurse, is especially memorable, drawing her character from an oh-so-familiar college-age babysitter, vulgar and feisty but loyal to her charge. Attempting to tell the story through Juliet’s eyes, director Grace Herman-Holland juxtaposes the young woman’s agency with the inevitable clash between her dreams and her family’s prejudices. In an interesting bit of staging, Juliet often places the other actors on the checkerboard platforms at the start of a scene, and then sits down and watches as the action plays out.
The audience participation and live music that make Romeo and Juliet: A Party unique end up being liabilities. The dancing briefly creates the atmosphere of the party where the two lovers meet for the first time, but why include the game? The band is great but unfortunately the music drowns out some of the dialogue. Having a bar and encouraging audience members to use it during the show is a nice feature, but not very practical, as some guests have to walk through the room during the performance to get a drink. But these are all workable issues; as long as the Woolgatherers maintain their fiery energy and address the pitfalls of their first large-scale production, they might be just what modern curious audience needs: a fresh approach to classics with an immersive twist.
(Romeo and Juliet: A Party played at MITU580, 580 Sackett Street, Brooklyn, April 25 through 28, 2019. Running time was 2 hours with no intermission. Tickets were $20 general admission, $35 VIP. For more information visit thewoolgatherers.com.)
Romeo and Juliet: A Party is based on Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Directed by Grace Herman-Holland. Set Design by Emma Antenen. Costume Design by Melinda Hare. Lighting Design by Andy LiDestri. Original Music by Julian Giaimo. Fight Choreography by Dispatch Combat Collective. Dramaturgy by Nicholas Orvis. Production Stage Manager is Natalie Jones.
The cast is Peter Alexandrou, Katharine Ginna, Kelley Heyer, Samuel Im, Meaghan J. Johnson, Bereket Mengistu, Brandon Sawhill-Aja, and Sarah Corbyn Woolf.