The triumvirate that runs Moonwork Theater Company—Gregory Wolfe (president, artistic director), Mason Pettit (v.p., treasurer, press rep), and Gregory J. Sherman (secretary, fight director)—sinks into folding chairs at the edge of the Connelly Theatre stage, drinks and gummy candies at hand. With a production of Romeo and Juliet about to open, they’re concluding a tiring day—rehearsal, load-in, set building, painting, sewing, etc. Casually attired, trading jokes, primed for a couple of cold ones, they could be any bunch of unshaven thirtysomethings ready for after-work R and R. But don’t let the boyish exteriors fool you. They take their playmaking quite seriously. Like lower-tier members of the Justice League, they’re arrayed to save Downtown from villains of bad theater: commercialism, self-interest, and lack of artistic vision. Their weapons: savvy, wit, absence of pretense, and affability.
Since 1993, Moonwork has dedicated itself to producing low-rent theater in high color and style. Assisted by a dedicated core of designers and associate producer Kathy Keane, they mount an annual Shakespeare play on a scale almost unheard-of Off-Off-Broadway. Richard III, in 1998, had a cast of 20, last year’s fun and frothy A Midsummer Night’s Dream boasted 27, and the Romeo and Juliet company tops out at a staggering 38, including a 22-member chorus. But Moonwork productions do not live by size alone; the troupe generously synthesizes innovation and accessibility, wedding a populist spirit to nuanced theatrics. This unusual fusion is no accident.
“Part of the reason Moonwork began,” explains Wolfe (Romeo‘s director), “is because we were doing theater that wasn’t that great.” All three cofounders had worked on productions that valued showing off for agents or attracting backers for a commercial run, at the expense of the theatrical process. “When people are worried about the nature of the commercial product, as opposed to the nature of the artistic product,” says Sherman (this production’s Romeo), “that annoys me.” The trio also rails against the ill-conceived auteurism and self-righteousness of much of Off-Off-Broadway. “Theater has the slightest little glimmer of a possibility to be important,” insists Pettit (who plays Friar Lawrence), shaming small companies mired in outsize egos. So the Moonwork boys assembled a simple mission statement: to function as a true ensemble, to work in service of the play, to tell the story. “I love Shakespeare,” says Wolfe, “and I love the stories. We have a responsibility to tell them the best way we know how. And we have designers who know how light can tell a story, choreographers who know movement, composers who know sound, costume designers who know color and texture.”
All of these elements promise to converge in the finished production. In rare examples of nepotism as a force for good, Pettit’s brother, Lowell, has designed the hauntingly beautiful set; Sherman’s brother, Andrew, composed the ambient choral music; and Wolfe’s mother, June, designed the costumes, while his brother, James, toils in the chorus (as, in the interest of full disclosure, does my boyfriend). Many of the cast and crew—and the Connelly space—are veterans of past Moonwork productions, contributing to the ensemble feel. And stage manager Carla Rao, a first-time Moonwork coconspirator, deserves a medal for coordinating rehearsal schedules. Imagine trying to bring together nearly 50 unpaid cast and crew members, each with a day job.
Of course, the Moonwork gang would relish having the monies to pay their workers or quit their own day jobs. But they’re doing all right for now. “Moonwork,” Wolfe explains, “is an anthropological term. It’s the work that the hunters and gatherers, Homo erectus, did around the fire—rituals, law, religion, talking about the hunt—which started the socialization of man. We are hunters and gatherers during the day. We forage. But at night we ply our trade in the stage lights. We’re still dancing around the fire.”
Romeo and Juliet plays at the Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th Street, through June 30.