Classical Theatre of Harlem puts urban spin on Bill Shakespeare's ROMEO & JULIET — Classical Theatre of Harlem — AAPEX

Friday, October 12, 2007

Classical Theatre of Harlem puts urban spin on Bill Shakespeare's ROMEO & JULIET

Special to The Miami Herald

In the Classical Theatre of Harlem's new, modernized production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, which opened Wednesday night and runs through Saturday at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, director Alfred Preisser wastes no time showing us that this is not a traditional staging of the classic play.

The characters burst onto a set of scaffolding and shimmering blue, green and red cellophane curtains. They are outfitted in casual street clothes (lots of denim), including one T-shirt with the words ''Smartass University'' printed on it, and plenty of attitude.

In the Harlem of ''the near future,'' tension between the Montagues and Capulets erupts in the first of several impressively executed fight scenes, with flailing limbs, a baseball bat, a golf club, and a few effectively startling but too-loud gunshots. (They sound real, but it's a small theater, and I hope, for their sakes, the actors wear earplugs).

While Shakespeare's language is mostly preserved, iambic pentameter is tossed out in favor of the cadences of urban street talk.

The dialogue is peppered with phrases like ''Your Momma!'' and ''You go girl!'' Juliet (Robin LeMon) incorporates teenage up-speak, occasionally ending phrases so they sound like questions.

Somehow none of this feels contrived, and it's not difficult to believe, for the duration of the play, that the black youth of Harlem might actually talk in the language of Shakespeare.

Still, purists might take issue with Preisser's choice of cuts, such as Juliet's love-struck soliloquy in the second act, which was scaled down considerably from the original. But the truth is, most people probably won't miss it, and the pace of this production works well.

One of the most charming things about this production is all that teenage bravado and angst, channeled into hip-hop dance scenes and alcohol-fueled partying.

It jumps off the stage -- in one scene, literally. A laugh-out-loud moment comes when a whole menagerie of drunk partygoers, including a drag queen in a bright yellow wig and silver short shorts, stumbles through the audience looking for Romeo.

The characters and the costumes are lively and bright. But a cop wearing a pig's mask? That's as cliché as it comes and doesn't add anything significant.

The production is provocative and sexually charged, taking every opportunity to imply a double-entendre in the existing dialogue. There is much bumping and grinding and crotch-grabbing, which overall makes for a dynamic show.

But all of this tinkering with tradition seemed to be a bit much for a handful of audience members who were so rattled they left mid-performance. In a moment of comic timing that could not have been planned, just as one actor was preparing to shoot a water gun through the legs of another, a woman in the front row stood up to leave, narrowly missing the spray of water. (Others in the audience took the hit).

Much of the action plays out against a soundtrack of hip-hop, soul and R&B, but the music worked best when a recurring guitar melody underscors the pure sweetness of the relationship between Romeo and Juliet.

Duane Allen as Romeo and Robin LeMon Juliet are adorable and sexy, and their chemistry is terrific.

Most of this production's innovations take place during the first half of the play. After that, it feels more traditional -- probably because the humor that defines the first part of the play has given way to the run-up to its tragic ending.

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