“This isn’t your grandmother’s Shakespeare,” producer, actor, and Flip Master David Hudson announces at the start of the show. He’s right. Neither is it much like the two adaptations of Romeo and Juliet currently playing simultaneously (one on Broadway starring Orlando Bloom, the other from Classic Stages with Elizabeth Olsen), nor like the upcoming Hollywood release.
For some reason, everyone’s freshman-year required reading is a hot commodity right now, but I’d bet none of these big-budget productions gets as fresh a take on the Bard as Three Day Hangover, the acting company behind last month’s The Hamlet Project and now, R&J: Star Cross’d Death Match.
The selling point for both of those productions was the chance to get your boozy Shakespeare on. Hosted on the top level of what was once Harley’s Smokeshack, an event space with a full bar, the shows feature drinking games, audience participation (which usually involve some sort of drinking as a reward/punishment), and several rounds of flip cup. If you have followed through with the company’s boozy encouragements, you should have a drink or two under your belt by intermission.
But alcohol isn’t the only thing ‘Three Day Hangover’ brings to their Shakespearean productions. This company knows how to have fun, but they also know how to re-envision these classic plays for a contemporary audience. What results is a theatrical experience that is alternately silly and poignant, fun and dramatic.
Take the famous balcony scene, for example. In R&J, the audience stands, for the most part, and follows the actors (headed by Nick Mills and Suzy Jane Hunt) around the room wherever the action is. The room goes dark and a light shines on Juliet (Hunt) sitting by a window, as she beautifully recites her “What’s in a name?” monologue. All of a sudden, Romeo calls out to her… and he’s actually down below on the motherflippin’ sidewalk! Audience members who have probably scored a one-on-one in Sleep No More were smart enough to keep tabs on Romeo in the dark followed him out and get to witness a true balcony scene from below, as oblivious New Yorkers walk past in confusion. Mills and Hunt capture R&J’s giddy love perfectly and though they’re not teenagers like their characters, their performances are youthful, exciting, unpredictable, and realistic.
The show also captures these elemental strengths in the rest of the production. One way is by ‘updating’ some of Shakespeare’s language, dispersing contemporary references and lingo into the play. My personal favorite example of this comes from The Hamlet Project, where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ask, “What do you read, my lord?” and Hamlet responds, “Words, words, ‘words with friends.'” For R&J, this means plentiful uses of “homie,” “oh my god,” and other phrases you’d find in a public high school. Modern updates on old language forms might become annoying, but R&J’s incorporation of such language is always used with discretion to sometimes comedic, often emotional effect. R&J also uses pop music interludes to highlight certain scenes to fun effect, most notably the song that comes after R&J have sex for the first time (to name it would spoil it).
R&J does drama too, and there’s obviously plenty of it in Shakespeare. One of my favorite scenes comes right after Romeo is banished. This production cleverly takes two separate scenes (one in which Juliet reacts to the banishment with her nurse, the other in which Romeo talks with the Friar) and simultaneously enacts them, recreating the emotional chaos disrupting the lovers’ newlywed bliss. It’s powerful, and it takes liberties that no Broadway production, Off-Broadway production, or film, could probably ever get away with.
R&J plays through October 4 at what was once Harley’s Smokeshack, 356 W. 44th Street.