Star-Crossed in the Holy Land… of Astoria

ROMEO AND JULIET…JERUSALEM

Genesis Repertory Ensemble

by Amy M. Frateo

Greek Cultural Center Astoria, Queens, NY

Cast: Michael Raver, Josh Silverman, Tania Asnes, Sarah Hankins, Justin Maruri, Mary Elizabeth MiCari, J Michaels, Raphael Kasen, Alex Moshofsky, Adam Gutbezahl, Shawn Watson, Mary Riley, Jennifer Gelber, Kenneth L. Naanep, Brittany Bellizeare, Carissa Cordes, Jason Cutler, Shaun Orbin, Sarah Leigh Orbin, and Dianna Lora and Ronnie Shumake. Direction by Mary Elizabeth MiCari & J Michaels. Translation & traditions within the production managed by Mimi Asnes and Nesreen Mahmoud. Set and costumes uncredited, and Rob Nguyen on lighting design. Eric Fitzgerald was stage manager.

This production boasts a topical production scheme and double-casting in the pivotal roles. I made sure to see both casts of this dynamic production and I was not sorry. If you missed this show I am sorry for you! Genesis which has a long history of bringing the classics to us in creative and cutting edge ways has done it again. This Romeo and Juliet touched me in ways other versions of the show never have.

Seeing Juliet in traditional Palestinian garb as well as all the Capulets in like-garb rooted me exactly where I needed to be. Not to mention the snippets of Arabic and Hebrew as well as a little Yiddish here and there. What a wonderful directing team Ms. MiCari and Mr. Michaels are. The show is well cast, well staged and flies by with few hitches. It hits hard where it needs to, teaches it’s lesson through laughter, love, and – of course – tragedy. Bravo.

Costumes are well done with women wearing veils and men in both traditional and modern dress. They made sense to me and quickly explained the person wearing them. I saw the set consisting of rubble and curtains and understood exactly where I was. The sound (also credited to Ms. MiCari) was well done and her choice of music added to the mood in exactly the right way, both educating us and gently nudging our emotions where she wanted us to go. The lighting by Rob Nguyen does well to highlight and add to the production. It was easy to see he created something special with little to work with.

The show starts with a very funny Sampson (Jason Cutler), a scowling man spewing Arabic at a young Israeli soldier named Hannah (Carissa Cordes) who spews Hebrew right back at him. This set up the idea that neither side could agree – because neither side took the time to understand the other. Their brief exchange and subsequent battle (choreographed with great energy by Douglas Castillo) showed me that I was in for a great night in the theater.

Mr. Cutler found miraculous depth in the small part of Sampson. It was a pleasure to watch him throughout the show and to see the darkness in him grow. Ms. Cordes as Hannah had the hardest part in the play. She remains on stage the entire production, reacting right with us. Greatly focused and powerful acting. Raphael Kasen played Benvolio, Romeo’s religious friend with great joy! He captured not only the pathos and intelligence of the character but also achieved much more as an Hassidic scholar with Hebrew and with great understanding of the culture. Adam Gutbezahl as Tybalt, was powerful and very believable. He actually did become the “king of cats” for me. Shawn Watson (credited with providing the authentic properties) as Lord Capulet is a huge and powerful actor with a great voice. He has an ominous presence. Mary Riley as Lady Capulet outfitted in full traditional Islamic garments was centered and made a small part usually overlooked an integral part of this production. Jennifer Gelber and Robert Liebowitz played Lady and Lord Capulet with honesty and integrity. My heart really broke for them at the end of the play as they prayed in Hebrew over the body of their dead son Romeo. Justin Maruri as Mercutio was at first an interesting character to watch as the angry Israeli soldier intent on protecting Romeo at all costs, however he played the anger too much too soon and his performance lost steam. His choice to play that one note left me dry when it came time for his – what should be – sad death. His Queen Mab soliloquy (which is usually a highlight) was rambling, without focus, and boring. He might have been over his head. Kenneth L. Naanep as Paris added an interesting spin on the character. Paris is usually overlooked…. but not in this production. He was funny and evil and great to watch. Brittany Bellizeare as the Princess was great. Powerful and beautiful, this actress is one to watch. Shaun S. Orbin added great humor as an assassin and Sara Leigh Orbin provided interesting work as a reporter viewing the tragedy. Diana Lora doubled roles as the apothecary and an unnamed Arab woman and Ronnie Shumake was funny as the confused cleric charged with the dangerous union of lovers. J Michaels as what seemed like Rabbi Lawrence was a treat. He was by turns funny and sad and dark. His was one of the greatest departures from the original text as an herbalist who smokes those herbs! What began as a comic relief built into a dark portrayal. I enjoyed it very much. Mary Elizabeth MiCari as the Nurse was a highlight. She captured the humor of the part (which is still sometimes played by men) yet made us totally believe she was an ostracized Palestinian woman. Her Arabic language, beaten-back posture, and accent all added to that for me. This is by far the most fleshed-out character on the stage and the most accomplished performance.

I saw both casts of this production so I will review each Romeo and Juliet team.

I saw Josh Silverman as Romeo with Tania Asnes as Juliet. Mr. Silverman was a bit over his head in this role. I understood the casting decision as he looked so much like a young Jewish boy in puppy dog love. He seemed a bit stiff and a little too controlled for this type of character however. Although I liked that his Romeo was intellectual rather than emotional I think he missed the mark in some scenes. That being said, I do think that he gave a well studied performance. I truly felt for him in his death scene.

Ms. Asnes, tiny but powerful was a smart and centered Juliet. A lady with a wicked sense of humor. I really felt the modernization of this character in Ms. Asnes who capitalized on Juliet’s intelligence rather than her innocence. With these two at the helm I laughed much and cried very much. I was touched by them as a team.

When next I returned to the theater I saw Michael Raver and Sarah Hankins as Romeo and Juliet. This was quite the different pairing . Mr. Raver is a beautiful man with large sad eyes and a sad demeanor. However, he gave away the story and telegraphed his destruction from the first moment he stepped on stage. With Mr. Raver as Romeo I felt pushed along. He seemed to be pushing himself. He seemed distracted, overly emotional and unsteady on the stage. There were moments of brilliance but not enough to sustain me. He seemed to be acting for himself and left the rest of the audience out. There were times I could barely understand him. However, his work with his Juliet, Sarah Hankins, was nicely done. They seemed to really have a relationship which was real and believable. Ms. Hankins (although a bit too old for the role) was a joy. She is full of energy and lightness which only made the tragedy greater in the end. Ms. Hankins has great command of the language and moves like a dancer. I do think she might be better suited for comedy but she was a joy to watch. Mr. Raver and Ms. Hankins captured the impetuousness of youth and their death scenes and love scenes were unusual and fresh.

It was interesting to watch the cast change and mold to the lead actors. It was like watching two different plays and a great pleasure.

This was Genesis Repertory’s attempt at moving work into the Astoria community and for that task they chose the Greek Cultural Center. This black-box lookalike in odd space that could barely hold this dynamic ensemble. Tucked in a side street of a side street, it would probably have been a great success in the 50s and 60s but in the 21st Century it looked a bit out-of-place. If it was trying to be retro, I think it would be a bigger attraction in a neighborhood that has little to no theatre but it seemed to suffer from neglect. When told that the building was slated for demolition due to commercial needs, this reviewer was none too surprised. It is a slice of the past that is not trying to move with the times.

Here’s to Genesis finding a larger more dynamic home and bringing work like this to a borough thirsty for theatre. Great job by all. When Genesis does another show I will be there.