LIVE: “Romeo & Juliet” @ the New York State Theatre Institute

NYSTI's production of Romeo and Juliet

Romeo (Brian Nemiroff) must leave his new wife Juliet (Kate Hettesheimer). Photo by Joe Schuyler/Schuyler Photography

When considering a production of a classic war horse like Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” there are basically two options for a director:

A.) Hew closely to the original and hope that the passion that you bring to it makes it stand out
B.) Update the material in an attempt to reach out to a contemporary audience

At Russell Sage College’s Schacht Fine Arts Center, the New York State Theatre Institute is currently presenting a “Romeo and Juliet” that clearly takes the tact of Plan B by setting the play in modern-day Iraq.

Ambitious? Yes. And conceptually intriguing, too. The problem is that it doesn’t go far enough…

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Director Ron Holgate shifts the action from Verona in Italy to Fullujah in Iraq, and Romeo is banished to Karbola instead of Mantua. Friar Lawrence becomes Imam Lawrence (portrayed wonderfully by John Romeo), and his messenger becomes a CIA agent. And the peace-keeping Prince becomes an Iraqi military captain. According to press releases, the Capulets are supposed to be Sunnis, and the Montagues Shiites, but there’s actually no mention of that whatsoever anywhere in the production.

But none of the characters names are changed, so we are supposed to accept that there are people running around present day Iraq named Benvolio and Tybalt and Mercutio.

And since the entire premise of “Romeo and Juliet” hinges on missed and delayed messages, the play completely falls apart by setting it in contemporary times where a government official like Imam Lawrence would certainly have a cell phone. I almost half-expected a scene in which Romeo would be leaning against a wall in Karbala and suddenly declare, “Oh darn, I was in such a hurry when I was banished that I forgot my cell phone charger.”

And Mr. Shakespeare’s handiwork has also fatally suffered from some really inexcusably bad editing. For example, Friar Lawrence’s final speech at the end of the play – the one in which he pretty much explains the crux of the play’s narrative (that he had married Romeo and Juliet, and that he had given Juliet a sleeping potion) – has been eliminated. So at the end of the play, all of the characters are hovering over these two dead bodies onstage, but no one seems to be even the least bit curious about how a “dead” Juliet could have inexplicably crawled out of her coffin and stabbed herself to death. Really?

There are some kudos due – to the beautiful single set design of Garett E. Wilson and the evocative lighting of designer John McLain. And to Matt Stapleton, whose Mercutio is broad, bold and bawdy, the best acting job of the production. And to the casting of Joel Aroeste as Capulet and John McGuire as Montague, both of whom are NYSTI veterans who have been with the company throughout its entire 35 years.

NYSTI’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” continues with performances at 8pm tonight and Saturday; 2pm on Sunday; 10am on Tuesday and Wednesday. Tix are $20; seniors/students $16; children $10.

Bob Goepfert’s review in The Troy Record
Michael Eck’s review in The Times Union
James Yeara’s review in Metroland
In The Daily Gazette, Paul Lamar writes, “The question of appropriate casting might not bother a young person; after all, any time you can hear Shakespeare’s words spoken by trained actors is, as teacher Dora Myers of Shenendehowa High School puts it, ‘icing on the cake.’ Nevertheless, I feel the casting of the estimable Ron Komora as the much older Paris is unfortunate, thus making the scene in the cell of Imam Laurence (John Romeo) particularly silly, and tonally off base.”

NYSTI's production of Romeo and Juliet

The Captain (David Bunce) investigates a death from a street fight. Photo by Joe Schuyler/Schuyler Photography

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