Knowing R&J is a foreshortened version of Romeo and Juliet may give you the impression that it's been somehow refurbished for yuppies. (As in, "R. -- Didn't really kill self. Just spritz my face with seltzer. -- J.") That impression would be wrong. Ever since the group unveiled the prototype at last year's Fringe Festival, Art Street Theater has been refining their funny, fast-forward, dream-montage deconstruction of the World's Most Famous Love Story. It's both quirky and dense, arty and absurd, stylized and entertaining. Time slips randomly; actors trade roles. It starts at the end, with Juliet's death, then recapitulates the feud between the Capulets and the Montagues that brought Romeo and Juliet to their sorry fates. The moment-of-death flashback strategy may have been lifted from Faulkner, who popped Quentin Compson out of the constraints of time to let him remember all the necessary details of his life in the moment before his suicide; and if so, that would be nicely circular, because Faulkner's Compson novel, The Sound and the Fury, steals its title from Shakespeare.
Beth Wilmurt plays Juliet most of the time. She starts the play with a passionate reading of Juliet's final speech in the dark; then the lights come on and she looks around. A chorus of four slowly striding narrators quoting Shakespeare's opening lines begins to summarize the Capulet-Montague feud. Juliet tries to stab herself again, but she can't: She's a ghost. Wilmurt's version of Juliet always seems bewildered, which makes her sympathetic to the audience, because the sharply choreographed movement, the cut-up style recitation, and the fast-paced replays of famous scenes can be confusing. They're also, happily, entertaining. In one scene Mark Jackson plays a braying, flatulent scholar giving a lecture on Shakespeare's play and discussing alternative story lines. "If romantic little Juliet" wants intrigue and drama, he says, she also has to expect a tragic end; while Juliet (this time played by Gillian Brecker) sits in an inquisition chair and looks indignant.
I'm far from being an expert on Viewpoints, Anne Bogart's discipline for movement theater, which asks actors to concentrate on different aspects of the stage environment while they're performing. But I've seen it strand actors in stagey dogma often enough to say that Art Street uses it well. The movement is expressive and disciplined: Mark Jackson is especially good as Tybalt, dying in slow motion. The music ranges from classical to jazz to earnest pop, and it never works against the scenes; in fact sometimes it's so powerful I think the show relies on it for certain effects. There are also flashes of fine Shakespearean feeling, especially from Bricine Mitchell, who plays the most ardent Juliet.
R&J's strength is that it never forgets to be funny. No spinoff of Shakespeare that I've seen has ever matched the Bard; but R&J is at least aware of itself enough to realize that it's halfway ridiculous, and gets on, briskly, with what it has to say.
Song and Dance
America Songbook. Stephen Pelton Dance Theater. Music by Robert Maggio with the Rova Saxophone Quartet. At Theater Artaud, 450 Florida (at 17th Street), Sept. 17-21. Call 621-7797.
"The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer." That's Stephen Crane in The Red Badge of Courage, reducing the origin of light and life to the scantest of things and saving all the heat for his words. Like the globbier impressionists, Crane's painterly Civil War novel foregrounds its creator's effort. It keeps a cold distance from its characters and their world, but its language is sticky with fevered insight. With Crane as one of its sources, Stephen Pelton's America Songbook keeps a similar distance from its subject -- snatches of an earlier America -- and for a similar reason: It's less concerned with depicting the past than illuminating it through revision. But until its elegiac final act, what the dance is revising -- and for what purpose -- remains obscure.
America Songbook is divided into three acts, each with a distinct setting and year. It begins with two silent vaudeville performers (Private Freeman and Kevin Ware) moving in slow motion through semidarkness. Accompanied by composer Robert Maggio's score --- a distillation of Scott Joplin tunes wrung of whimsy -- the dancers' measured movements clue us in to the fact that in this work, somber reflection overlays historical depiction.
When, moments later, the scene shifts to a small-town bar in 1909, we're heavy with expectation. The full ensemble flirts and brawls, becoming more blurry and jagged as they drink and drink, break into song ("Someone, someone bring more beer/ Get some beer/ And bring it here"), and line up for a head-to-butt conga. But it's hard to enjoy the fun. What does it all signify?
Of course, it's possible for a dance to be simultaneously dramatic and "unprompted by references other than to its own life," in the words of dance-for-its-own-sake pioneer Merce Cunningham. And, in its congealing and diffusing chaos when dancers fold in like a fan, then scatter, Songbook comes close to Cunningham's moments of beauty spilled out of sudden encounters. It's also possible for a dance's movement to touch its audience even when whatever "larger" purpose it claims is unfathomable.