As the sun began to fade on Friday evening, nobody knew what to expect or when to expect it at Romeo and Juliet at YoungArts. The crowd of hundreds spread across the plaza next to Biscayne Boulevard, many sitting and standing in a big circle around a small cross-shaped platform, looking around expectantly, excited and uncertain. "It’s interactive," I kept hearing, as people tried to figure out where to place themselves, which way to look. A few small children, oblivious to any expectations, ran up and down one of the stage ramps. When a panting, frantic Eddie Brown, in a black hoodie, suddenly darted through the crowd, peering into faces, calling out, "it’s time! Does anyone have the time?" people both leaned forward and recoiled. That much interactivity seemed to unnerve some.
Although Shakespeare’s prologue about the star-cross'd lovers also rang out across the plaza, Brown’s words cut deeper, echoing the eternal parental frustration and more contemporary fears of children shot in the streets.
"Teenagers! What the f--- is wrong with teenagers!?" Brown howled at a trio of startled (actually tween) girls. "It was not enough to keep the peace! We lost them! We lose them! Look up and see them written in the stars!"
Director/playwright/Shakespeare and Miami devotee Tarell Alvin McCraney’s version of Romeo and Juliet was, as promised (and it was almost the only promise McCraney made about this performance), nothing like any traditional or even non-traditional staging of the Bard’s famous romantic tragedy. There was no coherent sequence of scenes or drama to draw you in. Woe to those who didn’t know the plot beyond the part about young lovers who die at the end. Or perhaps not – with breaking, ballet, voguing and modern dance, with some cleverly self-conscious Miami and performance satire, with surprise performers and the adventure of searching for the next action – you didn’t really need to know the story. This was, as McCraney hoped, a captivating, surprising event of its own.
The first part took place on the plaza platform, riffing audience expectations and confusion with a hiphop/club style take on the Capulet-Montague conflict. "How come you’re not dressed like you’re at the Renaissance Faire?" actor Josue Gonzalez, as a comic, bewildered stand-in for the Miami audience who emerged from the crowd, indignantly asked a menacing Rudi Goblen, leading a magenta t-shirted Capulet gang. "Does this look like Viscaya to you, bitch?!" replied Kerine Jean Pierre. The Capulet ball became a dance-off between Goblen and Charlie Chizo, veterans of Miami breakdance rulers Flipside Kings, and a trio of vogueing Montagues, led by long, lean Luis Cuevas (who choreographed all the dances) and presided over by a fey, commanding Javier Spivey, who announced himself as both Lord and Lady Capulet (and Beyonce and Jay Z, Michelle and Barack.)
Comedy ran underneath. "Let’s review" boomed a voice, to introduce Andrew Hevia’s rapidfire montage of Romeo and Juliet film clips, which flickers through old Hollywood to Baz Luhrman’s punk Mafioso on the beach version to Shakespeare in Love. Gonzalez becomes still more hilariously bewildered, arguing with Ceci Fernandez, who flips, line by line, between Juliet’s nurse and Gonzalez’ girlfriend. "Scurvy knave!" she berates him. "Shut up and buy me a drink."
There’s a marked shift in location and tone after that, to poetic dance and visual scenes around the plaza, with Brown an ominous voiced guide pointing the way. The change was marked by Miami City Ballet dancers Jovani Furlan and Emily Bromberg in the balcony pas de deux from the John Cranko version of Romeo and Juliet. Lovely as they were, and thrilled as the crowd seemed to be to see these beautiful creatures in their spectacular lifts and heartfelt hugs, the moment jarred a bit – the formality of the movement and the style of performing was so different from everything else before and afterwards.
More moving was Kelly Robotham (a former Alvin Ailey dancer), clad in white lace dress, in a yearning modern dance solo on a small platform in a corner of the plaza. It was set to a voiceover of the monologue where Juliet agonizes over Romeo’s murder of her cousin Tybalt and his subsequent banishment – Robotham’s movement intensifying and reflecting the emotional power of the language. Gentry George, a powerful dancer with Peter London’s Miami troupe, did an equivalent solo on another corner, arching and writhing to an account of Romeo seeking poison after learning of Juliet’s supposed death. In between the audience funneled up a narrow stairway to the second floor of the Jewelbox, one of the plaza’s two buildings, crowded into a dark room to watch a dreamlike sequence of images of stars and cosmic images – a hypnotic metaphor for the single night the star-crossed couple – represented by Cuevas and Pierre - spends together. At the end the entire cast collapses slowly onto the plaza – everyone dies. And Brown, the narrator, returns to Shakespeare’s words, reminding us that "never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo."
You didn’t weep. There were some technical glyphs, microphones which malfunctioned, long gaps between scenes where the energy lagged. But McCraney created an event to remember, utterly particular to this city. The performers were richly representative of Miami talent (and of YoungArts, with several winners of the foundation’s annual program), and they were electric with energy. The audience was one of the most diverse I’ve ever seen in Miami, all ages and colors, hardcore art-goers and newcomers. By halfway through they all seemed entranced, united by the experience. Afterwards people lingered, hugging and greeting the performers, talking to each other. What kind of theater it was is hard to say. But this Romeo and Juliet was well worth experiencing.