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Hypokrit Theater’s debut play ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a blasé adaptation, with poor acting

Review of play, running in Manhattan through Feb. 21.  

By Sujeet Rajan

NEW YORK: In the last four centuries since he first wrote it, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is arguably Shakespeare’s most staged play globally, with a thin line separating the romantic tragedy it was meant to be, from being a melodrama, infused as it is with frequent bouts of humor and deadly clan fights. The sub-plots, including generational differences, culminate in the famous climax: the death of two young hopeless lovers, in a cruel twist of fate.

For beginners and aficionados alike, the play, with all its myriad adaptations on the stage and on celluloid, its modern-day connotations included, still represents primarily unrequited love.

This month itself, an adaptation of the play staged in Camden, New Jersey shows the escalation of tensions between the two warring families which prevent the two lovers from being united, through acerbic comments on social media. It’s almost two generations removed from Baz Luhrmann’s bold 1996 film adaptation ‘Romeo + Juliet’, which was targeted at teens, and starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

Over the years, the play has been staged to reflect periods like the Cold War, apartheid in South Africa, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Convoluted variations introduced include themes of homosexuality and a happy ending.

In this mélange, comes yet another adaptation of Romeo and Juliet from a new theatre company, the New York-based Hypokrit Theatre Company, co-founded by Arpita Mukherjee and Shubhra Prakash. Mukherjee, a Columbia University alum, directed the play, which marks the company’s debut offering. It plays through February 21 at the Access Theater in Manhattan. The USP of the adaptation: it’s touted as a ‘Bollywood love story’, set in modern Delhi.

Hypokrit’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ fails miserably to live anywhere close to its billing or adaptation, with bar a couple of the supporting actors appearing galvanized, the rest, including the lead pair of Gerrard Lobo (Romeo) and Morgan DeTogne (Juliet) mouthing lines as if having practiced for a few agonizing hours in front of a mirror, with the soul of the play a distraction and be damned; contortions of the mouth to be interpreted as acting.

DeAndre’ M. Baker as Lord Capulet and Aizzah Fatima as the Nurse to Juliet, were the standouts in the play, essaying their roles convincingly. Baker’s costume could have been better though – he came through the play dressed in an old shabby lungi and shirt, a gold necklace dangling on the out from his neck, very much in the mold of a local mafia don in the south of India.

The lack of chemistry between the lead duo is appalling. Instead of sending down shivers of anticipation and dread down the spine of the audience in the close confines of the theater – which with only 50 seats in an arc around the stage, is like sitting in the living room of a family as they go about their business – the banality, and lack of realistic portrayal, became a struggle to sit through for two hours.

A point to be noted: the play has two separate casts, and the preview this writer attended was with an ensemble cast which Mukherjee pointed out in a conversation before the play was the more “experienced” one.

Set with only one prop, a mausoleum like white-cloth covered table in the middle of the stage, as if in a dargah, it serves as a podium for key moments: like Juliet’s soliloquy on a ‘balcony’, loud aggressive proclamations from aggressors, and also the lovers’ death-bed. The stage also has floor to ceiling screens of muslim-like cloth in the background, changing images on it giving relief, signifying day to night segues. But for the most part, the images are too fuzzy, an abstract mix of designs and colors. It could have been a powerful tool if used better to enhance the settings and emotions, especially given Shakespeare’s penchant for playing with light on stage.

Instead of capturing audience attention and keeping it riveted, the flaws of the play, however, becomes even more exposed in the intimate setting of the theater.

And God save Bollywood from extinction, if what it entails is two rather obtuse forms of flailing arms and legs dance, which in this play, comes through a group of four female dancers, at the beginning and transition after the interval, to the tunes of songs from Hindi films.

If only the lead actors and the other cast had learnt to do some graceful jhatkas necessary for a Bollywood dance, perhaps it could have salvaged some laughs, added some energy to the proceedings. But as excerpts from Hindi film tracks played at regular intervals in the play, the clumsy dance moves that ensued by the cast became a morbid form of let-down too.

And the setting of Delhi for the play? Well, for that one has to use one’s imagination – really hard (more so for somebody like me who grew up in Delhi), and presume desperately that the salwars and kurtas some of the actors wear have been made in Delhi, feel connected that way. Better would be though to go to Jackson Heights and gaze at the rows of Indian dresses in stores there.

If Hypokrit’s play had interspersed colloquial words or altered the adaptation like Vishal Bharadwaj did for his trilogy of films set in India based on Shakespeare’s works, and showed perhaps through the images in the background the menace that is spreading in Delhi’s suburbs, like khap panchayats, new wealth colliding with unfounded ambitions, and growing reckless love and crime, it would have been an interesting take. However, apart from some cuts in the script from the original version, Mukherjee adheres to the bard’s original language.

Hypokrit’s ‘Rome and Juliet’ does seem partly inspired though by Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2013 film ‘Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela’, with the feisty Ranveer Singh and sublime Deepika Padukone in leading roles.

One good thing to be applauded: in doing color blind casting, and even using a female to play the crucial role of Mercutio (played by Prakash), Mukherjee showed that it’s possible to remove social barriers and pre-set notions. However, that’s only minor consolation for a play that’s overall blasé and frankly, a ridiculous waste of time to watch.

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