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Queens Chronicle

Love at first sight, fights and a long goodnight

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Posted: Thursday, August 22, 2019 10:30 am

A touch of the Elizabethan Renaissance has arrived in our midst, thanks to the Queens-based startup theater troupe known as Rude Grooms, which is presenting William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” at various locations in a corner of the borough through Aug. 25.

A 90-minute, minimalistic version of the famous tragic love story, the production officially opened Friday evening at Astoria Park, with several dozen spectators of all ages in attendance.

What separates this theatrical company from several other local ones that, likewise, specialize in works of The Bard, are its efforts to present his plays as they might have been seen in his time.

They perform on a grassy playing area, bringing them up close to members of the audience, most of whom are seated on the ground on blankets and with whom they frequently engage. Friday night, the group’s manager, Montgomery Sutton, who also appeared in multiple roles, on more than one occasion even played directly to a canine spectator, much to the delight of the humans in attendance.

Most amusing is the way the actors incorporate the environment into their performance. When a nearby elevated train created a disturbance as it roared past, the actors paused the action (and, in some cases, even paid homage via some deep bowing in the direction of the tracks).

According to Sutton, each night’s performance is unique, varying according to audience reaction, resulting in what he called “a very different experience” each time.

He suggested that performances are “designed to be responsive in the moment, a cross between improvisation and classical theater.”

And the actors performed without the benefits of microphones or lights, managing to take their final bows just as the sun was setting on the East River, which provided an idyllic backdrop behind them.

The process leading up to opening night is also unconventional, according to Daniel Kemper, a company manager and performer.

It’s “fast and furious,” he said, helping to “keep things fresh for the audience and the actors.” A 10-day rehearsal schedule is just enough time for actors to “experiment and play around” as they dive into the material.

In a most unusual move, there is no single director at the helm, making the words of the playwright all the more important, Sutton explained. “Shakespeare becomes the director,” he said.

A preshow, brief musical introduction performed by the cast helped set the scene. The Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker,” a song about leaving one’s comfort zone for the person one loves, was apropos, and gave the evening a contemporary feel.

Several members of the cast were particularly memorable. Among these was Rachel Schmeling, who displayed an inner strength and emotional intensity as Juliet transitioned from innocence to adulthood. Looking more like a lumberjack than the prototypical Romeo, Dhruv Iyengar, sporting long hair and blue jeans, was an idealistic young man, passionate, and in love with the idea of being in love.

Sutton, in one of a trio of roles, made for a powerful Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend, serving as his foil and mocking his romantic notions. Also commanding the stage was Jerome Harmann Hardeman as Capulet, Juliet’s father, demanding respect and displaying tremendous emotion when required. Casterline Villar provided comic relief as the vulgar nurse who raised Juliet.

The troupe’s mission is to make theater accessible to as many people as possible, Kemper said. Now in only their second season, they seem well on their way.

‘Romeo and Juliet’
When: Thu.-Sat., Aug. 22-24, 6:30 p.m.; Sun., Aug. 25, 1:30 and 6:30 p.m.
Where: Rainey Park, Astoria (Aug. 22); Astoria Park, (Aug. 23-24); Plaxall Gallery, 5-25 46 Ave., LIC (Aug. 25)
Entry: Free. (646) 725-8539,

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