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Verona Walls

 L-R:  Matthew Russell (The Bard), Ryan McCurdy (Mercutio), Christine Verleny (Mistress Quickly), Mick Bleyer (Ben).  Photo by Gerry Goodstein


                                                        by Julia Polinsky


Verona Walls, by the talented young playwright Laura Hirschberg, presents a back story for Romeo and Juliet. It focuses on Mercutio, whose tale of love and death plays out against a backdrop of graffiti, modern pop tunes, and hipster hats. The potential for disaster is huge, but the show turns out to be charming, largely due to excellent direction of an engaging and talented cast.



Verona Walls. The scene: Verona. The walls: graffiti’d slabs of concrete that pivot to become garden or pub or anywhere in Verona. The story: Mercutio (the excellent Ryan McCurdy) swears off women and love forever. He and Ben (Mick Bleyer) repair to a pub, to drown their sorrows and pick fights, and also for Ben to woo his ladylove, Mistress Quickly (Christine Verleny). Romeo (Jacob Owen) enters, enlists Mercutio as a wingman for tea with Rosaline (Lauren Riddle) and her visiting cousin, Alyssa (Rachel Flynn).


Ryan McCurdy as Mercutio, Rachel Flynn as Alyssa


Thus, Mercutio and Alyssa meet and fall in love – at least, Mercutio does. But Alyssa leaves everywhere she goes; a wanderer, she travels, and the world is her home. For Mercutio, Verona is the world. Heartbreak and breakup in the second act are inevitable, as the action of Romeo and Juliet starts to seep into the action of Verona Walls. The famous sword fight between Tybaldt and Mercutio ends as it ends, no surprises.


Yet, huge surprises. Nothing looks or sounds as could be expected, in a play heavily based on Shakespeare’s best known work. With Verona Walls, author Laura Hirschberg makes the decision to turn Romeo, Benvolio, and especially Mercutio into post-postmodern dudes, and makes a mash up of references to the 16th century.


Verona Walls is reminiscent of a drinking bout after a Shakespeare seminar, with bright, witty people tossing around ideas and what-ifs. What if Benvolio is actually a super-fighter, dangerous and deadly? What if Mercutio is the jaded uber-dude ladies man of Verona, and meets The One? What if the walls of Verona are covered with graffiti? What if Rosaline shows up, and she’s a hottie with attitude? What if Romeo is kind of a wimp? What if, what if, what if?


  Ben Sumrall and Liz Wasser as the Chorus


The characters in Verona Walls feel and sound like a group of clever, erudite English grad students, throwing classical poetry into their conversation because they’re addicted to conspicuous literacy. They talk to each other in 21st century American youthspeak, occasionally salted with words culled from Shakespeare’s work.


L-R:  Christine Verleny, Rachel Flynn, Lauren Riddle, Ben Sumrall


These characters are so modern. The male leads are not men; they are Guys, in black leather jackets, and jeans. The ladies mostly dress in variations of steampunk, with the exception of fair Rosaline, a high-maintenance chick who could go to a party tonight in her babealicious dresses. Alyssa owes much to Shakespeare’s Beatrice, with her snappy comebacks, her wit, her sharpness, and ultimately, her decision. Mercutio himself is the most fully imagined of the characters, but the others fade a bit. Romeo, Ben: not quite forgettable, nearly interchangeable. Of the rest, only Mistress Quickly comes fully to life. When you have characters named The Man (Ben Sumrall), The Woman (Liz Wasser) and The Bard (Matthew Russell), they’re pretty much guaranteed to be one-dimensional – maybe even unnecessary.


Cell phones and swords, daggers and weightlifting gloves: the overall intention may have been anachronism, but it comes off as poly-chronistic; not things and speech out of time, but time as flexible. You like that, or you don’t. Director DeLisa M. White has, surprisingly, made it work, with the help of a dedicated cast using its considerable talent with care and conviction.


Just a heads up: an author who chooses to turn Shakespeare’s characters into contemporary buffoons invites skepticism, at the least. Kudos to Laura Hirschberg for almost pulling it off, and the excellent cast, for making these potentially annoying bros into people it wouldn’t kill you to know.


The core issue: it’s a pity Hirschberg couldn’t set the play wholly within one time period or the other. The jarring anachronisms do no service to a play that’s actually fairly serious. Also, the jokes, pratfalls, and the songs, the out of place, unnecessary songs, Gershwin, Beatles, Cheap Trick: why?


It’s as if the author couldn’t make the decision to write the play behind this one, the play that treats these characters and this backstory with care and seriousness, without resorting to time-bending tricks for their entertainment value. Without the cross-time, cutesy cultural references, there’s a real play here. It would be interesting if Hirschberg wrote that play – she’s good enough to pull it off. In the meantime, Verona Walls has much to entertain, charm, and delight you, and is well worth seeing.


Verona Walls  by Laura Hirschberg

Presented by The Workshop Theater

312 W 36th St., 4th Floor

Through March 26

Thursdays 7 pm, Fridays and Saturdays 8pm, Sundays 3pm; Wednesday 3/23, 7pm

$18; students and seniors, $15

Ovation Tickets: 866-811-4111