Near the climax of Shakespeare’s timeless tale of star-crossed lovers, the ever-impetuous Romeo hits the black market for a poison that will end his life “As violently as hasty powder fired/Doth hurry from the fatal cannon’s womb.”
The Actors’ Shakespeare Project (ASP) takes its cue from the Bard’s emphasis on speed and violence in its full-blast, urban youth-oriented production of “Romeo and Juliet,” now nearing the end of its month-long run at the Strand.
In 2006, ASP made its Strand debut with a multiracial production of “Hamlet.” ASP daringly “traded places,” seating the the audience on the Strand stage and moving the actors around in the house seats and balconies.
For ASP’s 10th anniversary season-opening return to Uphams Corner, co-directors Bobbie Steinbach and Allyn Burrows put some spectators in the orchestra section and some in tiered rows on the stage itself, playing out the action in an unusual split-level, arena style. With entrances through the aisles and much not-strictly-necessary racing around Janie Howland’s 360° degree scenic environment, this “R and J” is a constantly moving entertainment that captures the turbulence of youth but little of its romance or tragedy.
This staging was just one of many surprises awaiting spectators. Sharper-eyed ones detected that interracial couple in the subway station pictured on the program cover and the publicity material were not the actual interracial couple in the show.
Though “R & J” is normally considered a cautionary tale about a disastrous feud between “two households both alike in dignity,” ASP directors shocked purists by totally cutting out Romeo’s family (the Montagues) as well as the vendetta-ending finale. The color-blind casting also sidestepped the Sharks vs. Jets mentality so many “R and J” productions inherited from “West Side Story,” suggesting that generational problems know no racial boundaries.
ASP didn’t bring its full A-team of thespians out for this production preferring to showcase the considerable talents of its ethnically mixed ensemble of professionals and non-professionals.
Accustomed as audiences are to “Glee” stars in their late 20’s playing high-schoolers, both Jason Bowen (Romeo) and Julie Ann Earls (Juliet) exemplify the perennial problem of being clearly too old to play tweens. Bowen, who was voted Best Actor in a 2012 Boston Magazine poll, delivers a solid, subdued Romeo, but often ended up as the straight man for brassier performers. Earls at times was directed to play old-school “giggly girlish,” a style that clashed with the ultracontemporary costuming which suggests the steely, jaded chicks of today.
Dot theatre teacher Maurice Emmanuel Parent won the widest acclaim as the volatile Mercutio, the drama’s sure-fire, scene-stealing part. Antonio Ocampo-Guzman scored highest with traditionalists for the performance closest to what Shakespeare intended as he transformed Friar Lawrence into Padre Lorenzo, swapping Shakespeare’s Latin phrases for Spanish ones.
Younger playgoers who sat on stage enjoyed being up close and personal with the bruisingly realistic fights staged by Trevor Olds, “Violence Designer,” a profession once known as “Fight Choreographer.”
Kudos to Jen Rock in her ASP debut with a lighting design (one of the best ever at the Strand!) that shifted seamlessly along with the cast as they chase each other around the banner-draped set.
The swaggering shenanigans of the first half give way to more muted proceedings in the second half, but the action never pauses for much of a breather. Hie thee speedily to the Strand, if you haven’t yet caught this production, for it endth November 3.