Volume 76, Number 1 | June 6 - 12, 2007

Brian Dilg

Noshir Dalal as Romeo and Malaika Queano as Juliet in Ellen Stewart’s dance opera adaptation at La MaMa ETC Annex.

Not your parents’ Romeo & Juliet

By Jerry Tallmer

As I sit here staring at the computer screen, wondering how in hell to handle this one, one of my father’s favorite expressions suddenly — in his own mild, just barely ironic voice — pops into my head out of nowhere:

 Too much of a good thing.

 It’s hard enough to love “Romeo and Juliet” just as is, unless you’re Tchaikovsky. Adaptor-director Ellen Stewart throws in everything from a swinging (literally, on a swing) narrator. to flip-floppy living marionettes on invisible strings (pretty good), to a huge-wheeled circus bicyclist, to a bearded lady, to an omnipresent spook-you set of Three Graces (called “Particulars”), to a castanet-clacketing gypsy, to a tambourine-shaking Prince of Morocco, to the dis-veiling of Salome, to the slit throat (before our eyes) and severed head of John the Baptist.

 “Colorful?” my mother would have said. “Colorful isn’t in it.” Energy, yes, which is Ms. Stewart’s stock in trade — has been, glory be to God, for 45 years now.

 All this plus a casting rainbow of Third World (and Fourth and Fifth World) contingency, plus an in-performance guided tour of La MaMa Annex premises (elevator preferred to stairs), plus one real shocker — the first glimpse of a Juliet (Malaika Queano) tiny enough and moth-like enough and seemingly young enough (supposedly 14) to raise the entire ugly seldom-explored-in-this-context question of pedophilia. Also unexplored, though of somewhat less moment in this multifarious “dance opera,” is the curious build-up of the role of Juliet’s Nurse (strong-voiced Meredith Wright), here given a whole ongoing romance of her own with a suitor (Brian Glover) who’s not up to the game. Do we care?

 Meanwhile, what of Mercutio (Juan Carlos Betancourt), and Tybalt (Eugene the Poogene)? Oh well, they die, more or less in passing. And Romeo? First place, the actor (Noshir Dalal) isn’t strong enough in presence or personality to hold my eye — I kept losing him, mixing him up with someone else — and, second place, the way the name Romeo, from first to last, is given an Hispanic (“Ro-mayo”) rather than an Italianate slant, kept me picturing a waitress yelling: “One shad roe on rye, hold the mayo!”

One word of special praise, for the performance, not the role, of George Drance as meddlesome, murderous Friar Laurence. I could hear Mr. Drance, every word, every syllable, whereas most of everyone else’s dialogue was muffled in technological blur.

 My father and Ellen Stewart would, if you want to know, have got along very well. Born poor in Richmond, Virginia, he’d come to New York in his teens to go to work as an office boy — a Jew — in a firm headed by gentiles. Ms. Stewart, born golden brown in the Carolinas, got to Chicago in her teens to go to work as a model, and then, in New York, as a dressmaker at Saks Fifth Avenue. My self-taught father adored music; he would have liked much of the music here by Michael Sirotta, Gengi Ito, and Ms. Stewart. In his whole life I don’t think he ever spoke of anyone as a black man or black woman. He would have said Negro. He would have said colored people. And he would have enjoyed this show — at any rate until the two-and-a-quarter-hour mark on that metal folding chair without a cushion.

ROMEO AND JULIET. A “dance opera” adapted and directed by Ellen Stewart from William Shakespeare. Music by Ms. Stewart, Michael Sirotta, and Genji Ito. Through June 17 at La MaMa ETC Annex, 66 East 4th Street (box office at 74A East 4th Street), (212) 475-7710 or www.lamama.org.

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