‘Romeo & Juliet,’ outside the box and under the stars

arts / Article

An image of the Romeo & Juliet performance on the YoungArts campus. Photo by Michael Bolden.

As much a block party on a mild May evening in Miami as a reinterpretation of classic Shakespeare, the performance of “Romeo & Juliet Outside the Box” on the plaza of the YoungArts’ Biscayne Boulevard campus Friday delivered what its creators, playwright, actor and director Tarell Alvin McCraney and filmmaker Andrew Hevia had promised: an experience.

Theater purists may scoff at the idea at their own peril.

As Shakespeare’s prologue boomed from the speakers, setting the scene alongside songs by Björk and rock and nu-soul music, the crowd settled loosely around a raised center platform. In the week leading to the presentation, McCraney and Hevia had talked about an “interactive performance” — but left the particulars fuzzy. Then the very first performer, Eddie Brown, dressed all in black with a hoodie, set the tone startling a few people by seemingly coming out of nowhere, racing about and into the audience while updating the anguish in the original text, saying urgently, “It’s time. Does anyone have the time?”

Never mind theater’s “fourth wall.” This was, artistically and literally, a no-walls theater.

In fact, Shakespeare’s words were reframed not only by the staging, but also by unexpected turns such as the comic relief provided by actor Josué González, who emerged from the crowd to ask, in heavily Caribbean-accented Spanish, “¿Pero que co... es esto?” (What the ---- is this?) — probably speaking for some in the audience, still wondering what this “Romeo & Juliet” was about.  (Without missing a beat, a “Capulet,” in character, asked him about the language and if he was “a Sicilian.” “No, Puerto Rican,” deadpanned González.)

And just like that, we were off to the races, to see what was the matter with Romeo, Juliet and these Capulets and Montagues who wanted to do all this fighting.

The performance moved from free form, over and around the platform, to a more formal stage for a lyrical pas de deux by Miami City Ballet’s Emily Bromberg and Jovani Furlan. There were also performances on two smaller, satellite stages, and then it was up the stairs, inside the Jewel Box. Enclosed in multicolored stained-glass, the iconic building was built in 1974 as an annex for Bacardi Rum Company’s offices, each side of the box displaying a stage in the rum-making process. It’s now mostly empty. For this performance, a section of one of the floors was set up with pillows, an invitation to the audience to lie down and gaze at the stars projected on a wall, and share the lovers’ only night together.

When the moment passed, Romeo and Juliet left on the elevator, back to the plaza.

At one point, an interlude/recap/visual CliffNotes of the play was projected on the back wall of the main building. The slyly funny short film, edited by Hevia, co-founder of the Borscht Film Festival, was constructed of snippets from what seemed nearly every “Romeo and Juliet” movie in memory, including cartoons — and then it was, again, on to the live action.

Still, for all that went on, to discuss the parts, is to miss the whole.

As the drama unfolded, the crowd, seemingly uncertain about their place at first, casually wandered about the plaza. Estimated at about 500 by a YoungArts representative, this was an audience of a diversity rare even for Miami, and made up of a loose, lively mix that included arts cognoscenti, newcomers and neighborhood people enjoying an evening out with the kids. Many took time to stop by the stands to get tacos, buy a drink and have a chat — and then it was back to the action, wherever it was now.

Both entertaining and thought-provoking, “Romeo & Juliet Outside the Box” was theater as a truly social, communal experience. Impossible to confirm, but one suspects Mr. Shakespeare would’ve approved.

Fernando González is a Miami-based arts and culture writer. He can be reached via email at [email protected].

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