Love's Labour's Loud

Imagine if the original cast of the movie Fame decided in their heyday to present a pop-opera adaptation of Shakespeare's most beloved romantic tragedy. Think flamboyant urban costumes (nearly everyone has a boa), a lush rhythm-and-blues soundtrack, and Debbie Allen­esque choreography— all with a touch of New York club-kid style. Such is the experience of William Electric Black's Romeo and Juliet: Tribal Rock Musical (La MaMa), a spirited showcase of young talent grooving to the beat of the Bard. Yes, that's right, the lyrics and lines come from the same book assigned in sophomore English class. Funny how teachers always fail to mention that Benvolio can rap or that the Apothecary resembles a punk headliner at CBGB.

More akin to John Guare and Gault MacDermot's Tony Award­winning go-go version of Two Gentlemen of Verona than the R&J- inspired West Side Story, Black's production hews to the original with a hip reverence for Elizabethan language. Not that it's easy to make out most of the words amid the swirling chorus numbers, roiling disco fog, and faltering microphones. Fortunately, though, the story is fairly well known, and to hear handsome Romeo (played with appropriate Teen Beat flair by Cosmo Fatizzo) croon, "Juliet is the sun" is poetry enough for a rocking evening.

The exuberant cast features Yaslyn Daniels's sweet, leopard-print-clad Juliet, Audrey Holt's sultry blues-singer Lady Capulet, Jenni Holley's Janis Joplin­ized Friar Laurence, and Jeff Pennington's Tim Curry­like Tybalt. While a trio of musicians, led by Ashford & Simpson's studio collaborator Valerie Ghent, will keep all ages boogying in their seats, the piece should appeal most to high-school and college-age audiences, who will no doubt happily approve of the slain lovers' joining in the big finale. Who said pathos can't be upbeat? Charles Mcnulty


Pshaw!

Though 20 years George Bernard Shaw's junior, English dramatist Harley Granville-Barker had a symbiotic mentorship with the playwright that can be sensed in both their oeuvres. Cast in a clandestine workshop production of Candida, Granville-Barker called in a favor from a rich heiress and began staging that play and numerous other "avant-garde" Shaw works, rapidly becoming responsible for GBS's early successes. But he was no George Bernard Shaw himself. His play The Voysey Inheritance, presented in all its elegant dullness in its New York premiere by the Mint Theater Company, opens on a young man named Edward Voysey. Edward works for his ailing solicitor father, who tells him the complicated story of how the company has been juggling the books and swindling all his clients— many of them close friends— for years. To make a long story short, Edward decides to tell the investors the truth and clean up the mess. There's some lively quasi-Shavian dialogue volleyed back and forth in the second act, once we get the opportunity to care about characters rather than finances, but Edward's a tough character to enliven, as he isn't terribly complex, his Sisyphean task is invisible to us, and his development goes from innocent to ingenue. As Edward, Kraig Swartz fights the good fight against these drawbacks, but it's sad to see him do so, especially remembering his charmingly flamboyant Phil in the Peterborough Players' You Never Can Tell. Director Gus Kaikkonen's production loses a lot in the translation from British to American. We're left with an American concept of English humor: crackling wit without good timing, and none of the British concept of self-deprecation as the ultimate form of charm— which could transform a play like this into something more than 2.5 hours of Equity showcase hell. James Hannaham


Grave Situation

Arje Shaw's The Gathering has barely begun before its star, Theodore Bikel, has the Jewish Rep audience eating from his hand. The stage lights come up, Bikel sits, then sighs, and applause deafens the theater. Bikel, a great bear of a man with a rough, gruff voice, has stage presence like borscht has beets. His committed performance as a troubled Holocaust survivor, and the crisp direction (by Rebecca Taylor) that channels it, nearly expunge the flaws in the somewhat stale material.

Shaw's play treads on achingly familiar ground in its portrait of a colorful, contentious New York Jewish family. Grandfather Gabe (Bikel) spends his days romping with his bar mitzvah­age grandson (a spot-on performance by Jesse Adam Eisenberg), bantering with the boy's shiksa mother, and needling his son, a speechwriter for Reagan. But the family dynamic goes from sunny to surly during the course of a Shabbes dinner. Gabe learns of President Reagan's imminent trip to Bitburg, a German cemetery in which SS soldiers lie. He roars with outrage while his career-driven son— a man who removes his yarmulke before taking a phone call from Pat Buchanan— argues for pragmatism.

This moment marks the play at its best, a discussion of ethics and principles refracted through the prism of a contemporary family. But the second act, set in Bitburg, upsets this careful balance of the political and personal— first teetering toward didacticism, then veering into a positive orgy of tearful soul-bearing. Fortunately, the strength of the performers, the swiftness of the pacing, and Shaw's occasional bursts of wit usually keep matters from becoming too overwrought. Who can help but laugh when Gabe describes his cocktail of two Tylenol and two Alka-Seltzer as "a real Jewish boilermaker"? Alexis Soloski

 
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