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Open: 05/19/12- Close: 06/10/12 Romeo & Juliet -- Performed By Four Actors
Reviewed for By: Rachel Wohlander
Dante Oliva Smith ©2022  Susannah Hoffman & Doug Chapman

These days it seems, if you're going to stage a play as beloved and canonized as William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, you better have a good concept. Empirical Rouge's ambitious production has two zingers: it is performed in an abandoned garage that was once Moe's Taxi Garage in an industrial part of Long Island City, and, all the roles are played by only four actors.

Director Tim Eliot, who is also the Founding Artistic Director of the emerging company, sees his economical casting as a political decision, or at least a structural metaphor. They explain their concept: “Political decisions, like romantic and family decisions, are made by small groups of powerful people, making choices in real times, based on the information they have at hand.” Or it might just be a good challenge for the actors, all MFA alums of the A.R.T./MXAT Institute at Harvard.

The actors certainly are powerful as they perform a dervish act of clever exits and re-entrances as new characters. Susannah Hoffman doubles as a spunky Juliet and scrappy Mercutio. She also plays the Prince. Sarah Baskin is especially strong as the Nurse, Tybalt and Paris. Doug Chapman is a sympathetic, down-to-earth Friar Lawrence (as well as Capulet and Benvolio). Jacob Martin plays a suitably angsty yet gentle Romeo, as well as Lady Capulet. While it is clear that the performers have roles they are most at home in, watching the feat of them tackle all the characters is exciting. The role changes are denoted by quick costume adjustments with a modern costume design by Summer Lee Jack.

The acting choices are subtle, not at all the over-the-top stock characters you might expect from condensing the ensemble to four. This is not condensed Shakespeare at all. In setting an acting challenge for themselves, they also decided to do the play nearly in its entirety. It clocks in at around two and a half hours. The pacing is good, and the subtlety appreciated, though certain moments lacked the dynamics required to hold an audience's attention.

The use of the warehouse space (thanks to Chashama, a nonprofit that, according to their website, “supports communities by transforming temporarily vacant properties into spaces where artists can flourish”) was delightful. Dante Olivia Smith's innovative production design allowed the actors to organically utilize the raw features of the space, including interior scaffolding and the corrugated metal garage door, which at one point opened to reveal a running pickup truck to bring the Montagues to the Capulet's party. The effect of opening the garage door was to bring the sounds of the street into the playing space and expanding the world of the play. Wooden shipping palettes and oil drums strewn about gave the impression of a Verona worn down by the feuding of its wealthiest families. What was probably once Moe's Taxi office made a perfect balcony, and the use of industrial lighting created a silhouetted and surprisingly fresh balcony scene.

Part of the excitement was watching lighting and costume changes being made on stage, or watching an exit, hearing the scuffling of a quick costume change behind the audience and anticipating who would emerge next, and from where. If the frenetic nature of constant change caused a few rough spots on the technical side and in the performances, it was a roughness that seemed to fit the space.

I applaud their efforts in condensing and intensifying the levels of human emotion, identity and relationships. The doubling up of roles also underlines what may be Shakespeare's central idea of the play: in harming my fellow man, I am also harming myself. The message that the one you call enemy is actually your kin is as applicable today as when Shakespeare, and others before him, wrote about it. In such an intimate space, I almost felt the moral obligation to call out to Romeo not to drink the poison.

chashama in Long Island City : 26-15 Jackson Ave.