Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Romeo & Juliet and Greek Comedy - Great Theater in the Park By Georgina Young-Ellis, Photo by B. Josh Young

What could be more appropriate entertainment for Astoria than a really good Greek comedy? How about a really great Italian tragedy? This summer we get both for free, outdoors, courtesy of Curious Frog Theater Company’s Summerfest. The Greek offering is Plutus, by Aristophanes, and the tragedy is Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, famously set in the town of Verona, Italy.

Plutus, directed by Whitney Aronson, is a wonderful one hour romp that I saw performed at the Astoria Park Water Walk on August 9th, its opening day. Actors in togas and sneakers, banging rough hand instruments and strumming blues guitar, opened the show before a backdrop of cardboard columns. A Greek chorus in drag then greeted us with a Beyonce tune, after which the story began. It is about how Plutus, the God of Money, regains his sight and endows a Grecian city with all the riches of their dreams, though the Goddess of Poverty warns that they’ll regret the God’s favors, and how her prophecy ultimately comes true. The tale is punctuated with Music Director Alvin Chan’s inspired use of modern musical references including a sing-a-long to the tune of American Pie. There are also countless bawdy jokes, endless gags about breaking wind, well-executed pole-fighting (courtesy of choreographer Rocio Mendez), crude but engaging puppetry, and a visit to a wellness spa.

Using broad gestures, loud voices and uproarious slapstick, the actors had everyone from toddlers to hipsters in the palms of their hands. Allen Hope Sermonia stood out with his borscht-belt-comedian style Plutus, as did Larissa Dzegar’s ferocious Poverty. Jodie Pfau, as the slave Cario, was adept with physical comedy, using dance and yoga to great effect, and Sergio Castillo, Lauren Ashley Smith and Derby Thomas rounded out the cast in various roles, all demonstrating amazing skill with song, dance, and comic timing.

Beware: though young and old alike will love it, anyone over the age of 10 will probably understand all too well the steamy sexual references. All in all, however, it is great fun and I encourage you to check it out on Sept. 19th at Queensbridge Park, 4:00p.m. It will be in the other boroughs until then, and you can find out where at

A week later, on August 16th, I was on Astoria Park’s great lawn near the train bridge, cooled by a breeze off the river and shaded by giant trees, amongst which was nestled the staging area for Romeo and Juliet. I call it a “staging area,” rather than a set, because the only set was a string of lanterns and a rustic chaise lounge. The only other stage dressings were the trees, and the only backdrop the rushing river.

After a masked dance illustrates the prologue, young men clad in jeans and t-shirts hurry onto the scene. They have ipods and cellphones in hand – they might be any guys out roaming the streets of Astoria, but their restless energy tell us that they are looking for action: a fight, a girl, a good time. Juliet and her nurse/pal skip in soon after with laptop in tow and join a Facebook group for an upcoming party, while updating their “status.” It is the only moment, really, when director ReneĆ© Rodriguez takes liberties with Shakespeare’s language, other than cutting away large swaths of the work, in order to trim it down to the sleek ninety minutes that the show runs.

We are then plunged into the familiar story: the Montagues and Capulets are enemies, but the young lovers from the two different families oppose all odds, and marry. The mortal battle of their friends and family members result in Romeo’s banishment, and a series of miscommunications take their toll. Juliet takes a potion that makes her appear dead so she won’t have to marry her mother’s choice for her, a man named Paris. Romeo rushes back to town thinking Juliet is indeed deceased, and finding her in the tomb, kills himself with poison. Juliet comes to, sees her love lying dead and uses his knife to end her own life. The family comes on the bloody scene and they learn the ultimate lesson: parents can’t choose who their kids will love, but should trust the choices they make and not pass on their own prejudices.

The miracle of this production is that six actors play all the roles. Leo Giannopoulos as Romeo, and Elizabeth Spano as Juliet, are the only two who play no other parts. Giannopoulos is a sexy, vital Romeo and the adorable Spano displays a slightly goofy charm in an untraditional type of Juliet. She’s grossed out by the thought of marrying some guy her mother has set up for her, and embarrassed by her first kiss with Romeo. Both of them exude the epitome of adolescence on the brink of the discovery of love. ReneĆ© Rodriguez does triple duty as director, Mercutio, and Lady Capulet, and she works magic in all three roles. As Romeo’s friend Mercutio, she’s a randy punk, a tough girl in every sense. As Juliet’s mother, she’s a shrill, drunken housewife, abusive to her child. Though I wasn’t completely convinced by Shannon Pritchard’s Nurse, her dual role as Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, was electrifying. When she and Rodriguez get into it with knives drawn, it is a cat fight like you’ve never seen. They spare each other nothing, rolling in the dirt, jabbing and sparring, leaping and darting with unbelievable agility, owed to their own physical prowess and the masterful fight direction of Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum. When Rodriguez’s Mercutio is finally slain, her death is one of the best I’ve ever seen portrayed on stage. Similarly when Romeo and Paris (played by Nick Maccarone) duel with rapiers, it is a riveting and dangerous dance infused with martial arts. Maccarone, who also plays the level-headed Benvolio, has a natural quality with the language that connects us with his characters and Allen Hope Sermonia as Escalus and Friar Laurence brought me to tears at the end with his final observations on the tragic events.

I’ve seen and read this play many times and didn’t think it was possible to be moved so deeply by a story I know so well, but Curious Frog’s interpretation made it new for me. All of the clever touches, Romeo delivering his “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks…” speech from in the midst of the audience, Juliet languishing behind a tree instead of on a balcony, actors handing out fliers and posting them around the park to advertise the Capulet party, are representative of the theater company’s creativity and originality – something evident in every production of theirs I’ve seen. You can catch Romeo and Juliet again in Astoria Park on September 20th, at 4:00, and it is playing on several other dates around the city. Go see it, and fall in love with Shakespeare all over again, or perhaps even, for the very first time.