In the County of Kings, where we lay our scene. R&J in the here and now.

Reviewed by Amy M. Frateo

Updating Shakespeare has been around for decades. Whether it’s putting Hamlet in a suit or writing a new script with an old message or adding a musical score, retelling the Bard’s work is pretty common – unless you’re Genesis Repertory. This group “holds a mirror up to nature” and takes Shakespearean text and collides it into new locations and time with a bang. Their locally-infused NC-17 Romeo & Juliet has a Russian Romeo sneaking into a private party and meeting Palestinian Juliet. Sparks fly – literally.

The play opens with a film sequence depicting the supporting characters feuding along Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst before the lights come up – not on the stage – but right next to the audience’s heads as Muslim and Russians, Italians and Irish, battle it out over a word and a gesture. Agile actors fling over audiences heads, curses in old Englishe, Russian, and Arabic are heard, and police come to break up the (literally) bloody fray. And that’s the first five minutes.

Mary Elizabeth MiCari’s in-your-face interpretation puts the play literally in our laps, we know these characters are real – we feel them breathing – until they stop… breathing – right in front of us. She packed on the grit in this production, presenting realism starting at the top: the two titular teens are played by two teens! Nelson Gonzalez was engrossing and superb as a sharp-tongued Romeo, a punk spoiled by his immigrant parents (a thuggish Russian-accented Jay Michaels and a comedic Jewish mother, Kristin O’Blessin) hanging with cousin, Benvolio (Anna Frankl-Duval) and her two boyfriends (John Stillwaggon as Mercutio and Kevin Sheynerman as a new character called Vanechka). Frankl-Duval’s Benvolio was a well-meaning soul trapped in the downward spiral of the family feud, Shaynerman’s Vanechka was an anchoring force allowing us to see the wildness through quiet eyes and Stillwaggon did true justice to Mercutio. Here, one of Shakespeare’s favorite characters became a wild neighborhood guy behaving far too badly to get attention. Stillwaggon, while excellent in the comedic moments, was also powerful in the deeper sections, especially during a stirring “Queen Mab” sequence complete with music and imagery. Rounding Romeo’s crew was guest artist Francis Callahan as the local priest. Callahan gives us much-needed subtlety and efficiency of word as the local cleric. Ironically, a Jewish Romeo might spend more time in the Catholic community center so the choice to not alter the religion of the role shows MiCari’s deft understanding of neighbor mores.

The Capulet’s side was equally well-played. Aileen Lanni’s Juliet had brains – a teen with a plan. This unique choice – if anything – enhanced the tragedy. Her brisk delivery and high voice made us laugh in Act I and weep for and with her in Act II. The Capulet family was a true well-oiled machine. Robert Aloi’s superb Capulet was – in good spirits – vaudeville in manner, while his dark side was chilling and, when directed at Juliet, almost too harsh to watch. As Lady Capulet, Lisa Tosti was thoroughly marvelous. A focal point in every scene, Tosti’s mastery of the Shakespeare and the Arabic was brilliant and her restrained emotion and subtext were to be savored with every word. Courteney Lynn Wilds played the Nurse like a grand dam, laugh and wailing, striking melodramatic poses even just to sit. Like Lanni, this proved to give us a joyous Act I and heart-wrenching Act II. Capulet kith and kin included Louis Tullo’s Paris, clear and crisp of voice and learned in his text; Mohammed Saad Ali, John Karcher, and Christopher Sirota (displaying genuine comic timing) gave rich performances and worked well in support; and finally, Miguel Angel Sierra as the captain of cats, Tybalt, moved like a dancer, made every breath a story, and doled out strong portions of rage. The climatic fight sequence between him and Stillwaggon was worth the price of admission alone.

Callahan shared religious duties with a new character called The Imam played beautifully by Lorenzo Valoy. He imbued this character with wisdom and proved perfect chemistry in a pivotal confessional scene with Friar Lawrence. The local royalty became the local law played by Eric Fitzgerald and Theresa Chow; and Jennifer Stella made the Apothecary an honest pharmacist.

Additionally Tara Abyssinia-Klang as – are you ready – a belly dancer rented for the Capulet’s party and Basem Esa as a robbery victim allowed us to see a whole neighborhood.

Precision fight choreography headed by Lisa Tosti, clever film sequences by Jay Michaels and Christopher Sirota and a stirring musical soundtrack prepared by Mary Elizabeth MiCari placed us firmly in present day.

Romeo & Juliet is exciting and fast-moving. It plays until May 22 and at $15 a ticket, not attending would be – well – tragic.

I hear they’re doing Hamlet next.