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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Review: ‘& JULIET’ by Robert Caisley at New Jersey Rep

& JULIET by Robert Caisley Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney at New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch on May 6, 2017 at 8:00pm

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” ~ Act Two, Scene 2

Upon seeing the title of Robert Caisley's new play, you may well find yourself quoting this familiar line from Shakespeare's oft-produced ROMEO & JULIET. Not only is the love-mad Montague missing from the world premiere now at NJ Rep (the Garden State's premiere new play incubator) – he is also noticeably absent from the title as well. Truth be told, & JULIET is not Shakespeare at all, but a play about the drama department of a small college producing the Bard's immortal tale of star-crossed lovers. Caisley's tidy three-hander pits an upstart young director against a self-entitled student intent on playing Juliet.

Educated men are so impressive!” ~ Act Three, Scene 3

The playwright shows a keen ear not only for the speech of academics, but the particular language of theatre folk as well. The campus's lush landscape, for example, is called 'scenery' and non-thespians are called 'civilians'. Dr. Hughes, the upstart's long-winded adviser, makes the play's sharpest, and most important, observation; that today's college students are consumers, with all the expectations and rights therein. Enter Annie: actress, college senior, consumer.

& John FitzGibbon, Jacob A. Ware, Nadia Brown
                                                      John FitzGibbon,Jacob A. Ware and Nadia Brown (SuZanne Barabas)
Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical, dove feather raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!” ~ Act Three, Scene 2

Annie ardently wants to audition for the newly-hired director. Problem is, he's already made a casting decision that would make her well-rehearsed soliloquy superfluous. Charlie, as the enthusiastic young professor insists she call him, has decided to cast the play as it would have been done in Shakespeare's day – with a young boy playing the role of Juliet. Historically speaking, all the female roles were played by young men in Elizabethan times, and Charlie hopes this daring staging will 'put him on the map' with his peers. Dr. Hughes, however, remains dubious. By shear dint of seniority, the production (and the corner office) should belong to him.

& Jacob A. Ware and Nadia Brown
Jacob A. Ware and Nadia Brown (SuZanne Barabas)

Thy wild acts denote the unreasonable fury of a beast.” ~ Act Three, Scene 3

Needless to say, Annie doesn't take the news well. In fact, her tyrannical tirades revel King Lear's storm. Caisley's trio plays a dangerous game of cat and mouse that can't end well for anyone. Well, almost anyone. At one point Charlie explains to Annie that proper casting is responsible for 90 percent of a play's success. Fortunately for us, & JULIET's director Marc Geller has had 100 percent success in this department. It is hard to imagine a more talented trio of actors than those assembled here. Lending gravitas, and a touch of malicious envy, is John FitzGibbon as the loquacious (Caisley's word) Dr. David Hughes. Jacob A. Ware's Charlie is an over-eager young man with an earnest intensity. Despite his matinee idol good looks, he's hiding a shadier past. Nadia Brown has perhaps the play's toughest struggle – to be the person in the room that nobody likes – yet everyone sympathizes with. Brown manages to locate the fine line between shrewish and self-aware.

                 John FitzGibbon                                               Nadia Brown                                                         Jacob A. Ware

Ay me! Sad hours seem long.” ~ Act One, Scene 1

If there's a drawback to this triple play presentment, it is Geller's propensity to push the performers to over-dramatic highs, when a more subdued energy might better serve the script. The tiny shoe-box theatre really doesn't demand the vocal intensity (aka yelling) that the characters sometimes resort to. This is, after all, Broadway in Long Branch, not the cavernous auditoria of the Great White Way. In such an intimate venue, less is infinitely more. By mid-Act Two, the characters have already over-stayed their welcome. Caisley may also want to consider streamlining his well-wrought narrative into a one-act wonder sans intermission.

But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” ~ Act Two, Scene 2

As per usual, there is NJ Rep's superb physical production to delight our eye. Scenic designer Jessica Parks manages the nearly impossible, to take us from a cozy office to the backstage wings in a space the size of a postage stamp. Jill Nagle's skillful lighting design gives the limited playing space a variety of moods and focal points. Even Patricia E. Doherty's (mostly) modern costumes are spot on. & JULIET is the Rep's 91st world premiere in its 19 seasons – each lavished with care before being sent out to stages worldwide. In the past months alone, a dozen plays that first saw the limelight in Long Branch have been produced nation-wide.

These sudden joys have sudden endings. They burn up in victory like fire and gunpowder.” ~ Act Two, Scene 6

While playgoers may start off wondering about the at-large Romeo, they are left thinking about the omnipresent Juliet. In the end, like the Shakespeare classic that inspired it, the play asks us to consider the eternal nature of desire – both reasonable and unreasonable. For New Jersey Rep, Caisley's play's the thing - & JULIET provides the sting.”
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& JULIET is on stage at New Jersey Repertory Company, Long Branch, New Jersey, until June 4th. For tickets and information, visit or telephone 732.229.3166.

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