Productions like this are the best examples of why live theatre so deservedly continues to endure and thrive, and how such risk-taking can redefine the parameters of future envelopes to be pushed. This show is also the perfect antidote for those of us who suffer from Romeo and Juliet burn-out syndrome, i.e., we who get physically ill at the prospect of sitting through yet another heartfelt “what light through yonder window breaks.” Theater Breaking Through Barriers’s take on Romeo and Juliet, directed by Ike Schambelan, includes every character, every scene, and presumably every word of Shakespeare’s text. What makes this production different—not to mention often exhilarating—is there are only four actors (three men, one woman) to perform the entire show in two hours with no intermission, and at least two of the actors have a physical disability.
Theatre Breaking Through Barriers (or TBTB) has been around almost 30 years, but formerly under their more familiar name, Theater By the Blind (also TBTB), which, according to its literature, was created in 1979 to “develop blind and low vision talent for theater, television and film.” The name was recently changed in order to embrace and include all theatre artists with some form of disability. In this Romeo and Juliet, Gregg Mozgala, who primarily plays Romeo (but also several others), has cerebral palsy. Given Mozgala’s considerable talent, charisma and impressive litheness in a role staged to be physically challenging for just about anybody, his tics are easily assimilated into the character and then quickly become invisible.
Co-Artistic Director and original TBTB company member George Ashiotis, on stage most memorably as Nurse, is apparently blind, which I did NOT know until later after the show when I finally read the program notes. If the other two actors, Emily Young (Juliet) and Nicholas Viselli (Capulet) have any physical impairment, it’s not noticeable—except possibly that wig for Juliet’s teenage “big hair,” which is endearingly ghastly.
This is definitely not a production for anyone who wants a good cry over the traditional tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. This is, frankly, anti-R&J, a gimmicks-based show played mostly for laughs, and it (pretty much) succeeds spectacularly to that end. But because of its faithfulness to the text, when those hormonally impassioned monologues rear their interminable heads, it’s hard to take them seriously and easy to start getting a little restless. The same can be said for the death scenes. Mercutio’s and Tybalt’s demises are staged more traditionally, if not plausibly, by Fight Director J. David Brimmer, but you can see the joke set up in Juliet’s death scene coming from a mile away. It’s still funny when it happens, but it’s not entirely clear if it’s supposed to be.
However, apart from the fact that there is no intermission, that’s the end of the minus points. Everything else is a great big plus, and the time just flies by. This production is set in New York City, 2007, and the wonderfully off-beat costuming by Chloe Chapin is contemporary and extremely versatile, making the many quick changes in this performance half the fun. The text is beautifully delivered by all four performers, and Schambelan keeps the action moving as quickly as a classic Marx Brothers movie.
A special nod must go to Ms. Young (who also portrays Mercutio) for her alcoholic and street-jaded rendition of the “Queen Mab” monologue, and for succeeding in actually making it relevant to the play. Even more impressive is her portrayal of Juliet in a hilariously practical and gush-free balcony scene. Apart from it being more palatable, it’s also a more accurate representation of a smart, but confused 14-year-old girl’s dilemma than the LITE-FM blithering love duet with which most of us are probably now associated.
Ashiotis takes on the roles of both Nurse and Friar, with scenes that are for the most part delivered as offstage voices, although Ashiotis wanders in and out every few seconds dressed in sedate priestly garb for a line or two, and then returns in his Nurse’s polyester Steel Magnolia outfit from hell. Because of designer Bert Scott’s remarkable multi-level set, Young, amazingly, is able to be present onstage, but bounce back and forth with minimal costume change in the church scene during which Juliet rejects her suitor Paris— whom Young also portrays. In his secondary principal role, Mozgala is a riot as Lady Capulet, with costuming that proves just as hilarious.
The only actor who doesn’t get to do any gender-bending this time around is Nicholas Viselli, whose principal characters are Benvolio and Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet. Viselli quite shines in the latter role, playing bipolar Capulet’s seemingly benign surface to the hilt with a laidback Texas oil baron drawl—until grief at Tybalt’s death and Juliet’s refusal to marry Paris sends him into a shocking and brutal rage.
In the program notes, Schambelan points out that Shakespeare, in his early career, only had about four actors to work with until an actual physical venue in London was established. Cast size grew as the theatre and company gained wealth. The later plays multiplied to a troupe of eight or nine, still not a lot when you consider how many characters the average Shakespeare play employs. TBTB recently mounted productions of Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream using only six actors for each, leading Schambelan to devise this Romeo and Juliet for a quartet. The measure done, this will be a really tough act for future Romeo and Juliet productions to follow.