Friday , April 19 2024
Masque of Night
Photo courtesy of New Place Players

Theater Review (NYC): ‘The Masque of Night’ – a Romeo and Juliet Cabaret

“Cabaret” might not be exactly the descriptor I’d have chosen for The Masque of Night, a distilled, musical Romeo and Juliet from New Place Players that ran for just three performances this past weekend. True, Maximilian Macdonald played guitar and sang in addition to rendering a knockout performance as Romeo. But most of the music came from multi-instrumentalists Flavio Gaete and Kenji Golden and from harpist Anna Bikales, whose roles in the production weren’t primarily focused on engaging with the audience.

But whatever you call this eccentric formula, out of it emerged a charming and interesting piece of theater.

Romeo and Juliet, Warmed Up

A cabaret show, typically, bears a more intimate connection between performers and audience than does a show on a proscenium stage. The Masque of Night certainly did offer closeness, staged in the living room-like central chamber of Casa Clara, a former foundry on East 25th Street in Manhattan, with audience members in folding chairs placed around the action. And Macdonald’s Romeo did often address us directly – but to sweep us into the world of his character as co-conspirators of the heart, not as an “audience.”

Image credit: Oren Hope

The real breaking of the fourth wall occurred before Shakespeare’s story of star-crossed lovers began. Co-director Craig Bacon led the cast in a pre-show warmup right in the midst of us. It was a cute idea, but it went on too long. (To be fair, perhaps the unorthodox venue didn’t have a space that could function as a backstage, so they decided to make a bit out of their full warmup.)

Once Macdonald and Libby Lindsey as Juliet slipped into their roles, actual theatrical magic manifested amid the warm furnishings and the walls heavy with relics of the house’s industrial past. The company feelingly delivered the very marrow of Romeo and Juliet – the wooing, the raw adolescent passion elevated to the sublime by Shakespeare’s poetry, the elopement, and the tragic end. All in barely more than an hour.

Casa Clara
Image credit: Oren Hope

Music Hath Charms

Songs by the likes of Damien Rice, David Bowie, and Caetano Veloso illuminated the story. The musical selections were quite effective, though Gaete’s stiff vocals didn’t match the high level of his and the others’ instrumental musicianship. The staging itself was engrossing: from Juliet perched high atop a (real) staircase for the balcony scene, to a surprising and powerful nonstandard depiction of the deaths that make this a tragedy.

Lindsey made Juliet convincingly impassioned and worthy of great sympathy, though in her speedy emoting she swallowed words here and there. Macdonald’s even more potent performance struck a golden balance between clear poetic enunciation and elevated, likable naturalism.

Bikales and Gaete doubled in miniaturized supporting roles, the latter notable as a heart-stricken Balthasar. But the show belonged to Macdonald, Lindsey, and the music. You can whittle Shakespeare down to a core, you can stage him in a living room, you can do most anything to him; in our collective imagination his characters still stand tall, their cries still ring. Directors Bacon and Janina Picard know this, and their nocturnal “masque” found the heart of Romeo and Juliet.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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