By Zach Martin, Arts Editor
Despite the extensive influence of “Romeo and Juliet”’s narrative tropes, iconic quotes and naive protagonists, the tragic romance — along with the rest of Shakespeare’s omnipresent body of work — has developed an undeserved highbrow status. The Public Theater Mobile Unit’s mission is to remedy this elitist connotation by putting on a classic Shakespeare production in a tour of unconventional settings. This year, they did a 3-week expedition through all five boroughs, performing in such spaces as cafeterias, homeless shelters and correctional facilities. As the company returns home to the Public for another 3-week run, the result of this mobile experiment proved to be a powerful rendition of the play that does away with extravagant costumes and sets, in favor of emphasizing the language and the performances.
The set is minimal out of necessity, with a large square carpet being the only main fixture on the stage. Other set pieces are brought on and off, but they are basic, nondescript furniture items including a lamp, table and ladder. The lack of any backdrop or set design creates a constant reminder of the nature of this production — that this carpet could be rolled out in any auditorium and there would be nothing missing from the show.
But what truly sets this interpretation of the classic love story apart from others is the extraordinary capabilities of its small cast. Most of the actors play multiple roles, sometimes in rapid succession achieved through impressively quick costume changes. Of particular note is David Ryan Smith, who bounces back and forth with ease between two completely opposite personas — the intimidating Capulet patriarch and the lively, warm Friar Lawrence. Additionally, Marques Toliver, who sings the prologue and provides the score throughout the rest of the play, has a stunning voice, comparable to contemporary R&B crooners like Frank Ocean and The Weeknd.
The show also succeeds of adding some modern elements to Shakespeare while still respecting and retaining the original language. There are several funny, winking moments that acknowledge the childish innocence of the main characters — such as sexually suggestive hand gestures from Friar Lawrence. Additionally, some dialogue with contemporary slang is inserted, most memorably when a messenger reads a party invitation to Romeo and ends it with “Come crush a glass of wine.”
Overall, “Romeo and Juliet” preserves all the power of the original play and adds unique tricks to make a familiar story fresh and entertaining. Here’s hoping that the Public Theater Mobile Unit will bring Shakespeare productions to the masses for years to come, especially if they continue to be of this high quality.
“Romeo and Juliet” is currently running at the Public Theater until May 8.