A Magical Night in An Inclusive and Accessible Verona
Being a theatre kid who was lucky enough to grow up in NYC, I feel I must be a bit spoiled. I get to experience the grandiosity of commercial theatre all day, every day. From ads for Broadway shows in every subway station, to being able to walk through midtown and be within spitting distance of all the Broadway houses, to having the luxury of going to see a Broadway show essentially whenever I can afford- which admittedly isn’t often- there’s not much standing in the way of me seeing a Broadway show most of the time. I am undoubtedly spoiled, and I realize this is not the case for most theatre kids. I was beyond lucky that I didn’t have to move across the country in order to pursue my dream of theatre, I won the hometown lottery when I was born in what is widely regarded as best city in the world to be an aspiring theatre professional. With that being said, I don’t know if growing up surrounded by “BROADWAY!” in New York has anything to do with it, but whenever I get to experience theatre in a different way, I am just as- if not more- enthralled.
Yes, the big beautiful spectacular of Broadway is magical in so many ways. To perform on one of those stages or Stage Manage one of those productions will always, always, always, be my goal and my Ultimate Dream. One could argue that the magic of Broadway- amongst many other factors - largely comes from the colossal size of their budgets which often affords them the opportunity to create huge technical spectaculars. There’s nothing quite like the lights and magic of Broadway- you’ll never hear me argue against how incredible Broadway shows are. But there is something to be said about the magic of small, underfunded, community-based productions. One could argue that the magic of small, non-for-profit, theatre comes from the fact that they DONT have money.
Hear me out: these smaller, underfunded productions are magic because of the community that comes together to create them. These productions rely on the love of people who just want to come together to create art and tell a story. The ingenuity and resourcefulness of these productions creates such a palpable atmosphere of community and love that you can’t help but be swept up in it and carried far away- even when the set only consists of a couple of platforms, some string lights, wooden swords and the surrounding trees.
ReThink Theatricals production of Romeo and Juliet is one such small, non-for-profit production that succeeded in taking my breath away. My experience of it started as this lost and out of her element city girl rode in a lyft through the beautiful Rutgers Campus (which is HUGE, by the way) to Rutgers Gardens. Driving through a college town in a part of Jersey that felt so foreign to me it might as well have been Narnia...I started to sense that I was going to get a very different theatre experience that night than I’d ever had before. The choice of venue for this production was the first piece of magic I experienced that night. Maybe it’s the city girl in me coming out, but all I saw was trees and all I smelled was fresh air and I immediately felt different. My lyft driver pulled into the unpaved road of the Rutgers Gardens, and in seeing the cast marching down the unpaved road together toward the theatre like a band of Musketeers on a mission, I felt like I was taken back in time, or to another world...
(I then proceeded to- like a total theatre novice-stick my head out the window and yell hello to my friend Eric who plays Tybalt, because in my excitement in realizing I hadn’t ended up totally lost I forgot that actors in costume are usually forbidden to interact with the audience before the show. Sorry, Eric!!)
I hopped out of the car and started my short journey down the unpaved road in the summer heat, taking in where I was and enjoying the fresh air. Being out in nature when my everyday reality is the smells and sounds of a fantastic but overcrowded city can be very grounding for me. I found myself taking deeper breaths, smiling to myself and looking up at the sky. The perfect little peaceful corner of the world to help quiet my mind and coax my imagination out of its hiding place in my oftentimes overstimulated brain.
I turned a corner on this unpaved road and was met with the site of a little patch of grass surrounded by trees and strung with twinkle lights. Between two large trees sat small stage that consisted of a raised platform with two steps on either side, framed in the back by gauzy white curtains. It was tiny and unassuming and utterly magical. It felt like something out of a story book. I would even liken it to a time when traveling theatre troupes would go from rural town to rural town, sharing stories and bringing magic to people for whom there were no other means of entertainment. After being greeted by the very friendly and kind ReThink volunteers, I found my little patch of grass right at the front and parked myself on my blanket, anxious for the show to begin.
There was no dimming of house lights, no black out, no curtain rising, no proper overture, and yet...the whole production was magic from start to finish. I could wax poetic about every aspect of this production, but we’d be here for hours. There are some memorable things for which “worth mentioning” is a gross understatement.
The casting of this production-aside from being brilliant actors- got me thinking about how we praise Broadway when it “breaks boundaries” and is inclusive and ingenious in its casting choices, but let me tell you: I think community theatre has done it far more often and for far longer. Perhaps it’s because community theatres -especially ones like ReThink Theatrical, which is so dedicated to making theater accessible in price that its ticket sales are donation based- have no big-name investors to answer to. Thus, they have nothing to lose in casting whomever they want- gender and race be damned. Alls I’m sayin’ is I have seen inclusive and untraditional casting done far more often in community theatre than I have in commercial theatre.
From the female Prince, to Romeo having two moms, to the brilliant performance of Allie Kroeper as Mercutio, this cast was one big eff you to traditional casting and I LOVED IT. Speaking of Allie Kroeper, I would be amiss if I didn’t explain to you how my jaw dropped and stayed there from the moment they sauntered on stage and it stayed that way till Mercutio was slain (spoile- nah, if you don’t know you’re about 500+ years too late.) I lied...it stayed there till the very end of act one, but I’ll elaborate more on that later. Back to Allie: I have always thought of Mercutio as a fascinating role, and one an actor could really sink their teeth into. However, I was NOT ready for the charismatic and yet tortured way they brought the character to life. I was not ready for how charismatic the entire cast was. I have also never laughed so much watching Romeo and Juliet before. I was floored by how accessible the language of Shakespeare became when brought to life by this wonderful cast. They took ancient words and breathed new, very modern (dare I say millennial) life into them. I found myself absorbing lines that I never really registered before and laughing in places I had never thought of as funny and that is a credit to the very deadpan, somewhat nihilist humor that this cast infused into Shakespeare’s words.
As far as our title characters go, I’m not sure how old the actors are, but the direction of the piece made it impossible to forget that our star-crossed lovers are essentially children. The actors Nishika Bagchi and Niall Ng brought an honest youth and naivete to our tragic teenagers that was honestly quite refreshing. The trap of many Shakespeare productions- not just Romeo and Juliet- is that it is very easy to lean so heavily on the prose that actors fall into telenovela levels of overacting. This production had none of that. Bagchi and Ng portrayed Romeo and Juliet as just naïve, over enthusiastic, lonely teenagers. There was no pretense in their performances. Watching them, they felt as real to me as any other hormonal, passionate teenagers. The lighthearted, honest, enthusiastic and childlike wonder that these actors infused into these characters only served to make the ending that much more tragic. I must also add that it was very fun and refreshing to see Juliet deliberately portrayed as a headstrong, feisty girl who is in on the cusp of becoming a strong woman as opposed to a weepy damsel in distress. Watching this production I found myself for the first time thinking about how the real tragedy of this play is not just the objective sadness of death, but about how sad it is that this tragedy robbed a slew of promising young adults the chance of creating a better world for themselves and their peers.
The entire cast had such a palpable energy that I couldn’t help but sit on the edge of my seat despite already knowing the story like the back of my hand. Every person on that stage radiated energy that said, “I’m having the time of my life.” The energy was infectious, and it made me smile from start to finish. It was clear that this cast was a tight knit family, and from what I’ve been told, that is a testament to how well ReThink Theatrical takes care of their actors. They created their own little world and we the audience were just along for the story telling ride. The small details that the cast and their brilliant director Jackie Knollhuff created to bring their Verona to life were not lost on me. It was not lost on me that Tybalt and Juliet had a secret cousin handshake, or that Mercutio had a bit of a drinking problem, or that Tybalt fought like a proper- albeit haughty- honorable swordsman whereas Mercutio was a brawler. My favorite little detail had to be the actors ad libbing in character during the dance sequence at the Capulet Masquerade- you’ll have to see the show to experience the hilarity that ensued from that.
Another thing worth mentioning (like I said- understatement) was the fight choreography. I’ll admit I am biased: Eric Hackler, the fight choreographer- who also floored me in his performance as Tybalt- is a very good friend of mine, and the reason I learned about Rethink Theatrical in the first place. However, his fight choreography is by far some of the best fight choreography I have ever seen outside of actual Broadway caliber fight choreo. It was dynamic, and interesting to watch to say the very least. This stuff wasn’t just your basic back and forth clacking of fake swords, I found myself needing to pick my jaw up off the ground at the end of act one because I couldn’t believe what a badass duel my friend had created. You’ll have to see the show to fully appreciate it but let’s just say there’s a sword trick in the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt that would give Arya Stark a run for her money.
There’s about a million and one other details I could elaborate on to illustrate how special this production was. From the lightning bugs coming out as the sun went down and act 2 began, to watching the actors appear from and disappear into the trees upon their entrances and exits…I could go on for days. I won’t though, because I would rather you traipse out to Rutgers Gardens and the Verona that Rethink Theatrical has created and experience it all for yourself. According to their Mission statement: "ReThink Theatrical provides free and accessible storytelling to local communities. With an educational and creative approach, we produce professional quality theater for everyone." From my experience of the show, and what I have heard about the rest of opening weekend, they have smashed each goal in that mission statement with this production of Romeo and Juliet. At the very least, I’d implore you to learn more about Rethink Theatrical and the work that they do. They are an inclusive, company comprised of young professionals and theater lovers who are dedicated to storytelling and art. This may have been my first encounter with their company, but I can tell that they create magic, and let’s be real: the world could use some more of that.
Wednesday, July 10th @ 7PM Thursday, July 11th @ 7PM Friday, July 12th @ 7PM Wednesday, July 17th @ 7PM Thursday, July 18th @ 7PM Friday, July 19th @ 7PM Saturday, July 20th @ 7PM