People discovering Romeo and Juliet for the first time, whether reading the play in high school or watching one of the several popular film adaptations, are often the same age as the two main characters. Their innocence and ability to be swept up in love while their parents fight is the main reason for the play’s appeal, and anyone who has viewed multiple productions can predict that naivete to drive the tragedy.
The Romeo and Juliet in Hypokrit Theater Company’s Bollywood-inspired production (played by Brent White and Brinda Dixit in the second cast) lack this naivete that an audience would come to expect. Their leading tragic protagonists aren’t completely new to love and romance. When they first lay eyes on each other at the Capulet party, Juliet doesn’t blush and look away. When they meet each other and speak for the first time, they don’t sound like people who have never flirted before.
These star-crossed lovers are a little more mature and worldly than previous Romeos and Juliets, and this isn’t the only way in which Hypokrit Theater Company’s production differs from more traditional interpretations of the play. Juliet’s nurse (played by a very funny and winning Monique Sanchez in the second cast) is not only the comic highlight of the show, but portrayed as roughly the same age as Juliet, rather than the motherly figure who raised Juliet more than Lady Capulet did. (Lines about Juliet being the “prettiest babe e’er I nursed” are altered or removed accordingly.) The part of Benvolio is played by actress Nikita Chaudhry as a cute and tomboyish gal pal of Romeo and Mercutio, adding a new layer to a usually thankless role of “that other Montague who speaks exposition.”
All of these choices are made to fit a particular aesthetic and to adapt Shakespeare’s classic to a more modern Bollywood theme. The nurse is young because heroines in Bollywood films typically have confidantes in their age range. Benvolio is a woman because love triangles are a popular plot device in Bollywood films. And Romeo and Juliet have a touch of maturity even in the early scenes because innocence isn’t a concept in the Delhi portrayed in the play.
Putting a new spin on Shakespeare is a difficult task, but not an impossible one when the artistic team has a clear vision of the project, and Hypokrit Theater Company, led by artistic directors and co-founders Arpita Mukherjee and Shubra Prakash, has a very defined vision of adapting a classic tale for a particular genre. Some lines and important scenes are cut and rearranged to fit the Bollywood aesthetic, and while I missed some of those lines (I particularly mourned the loss of “she doth teach the torches to burn bright”), it was clear that none of them were cut without careful thought.
The result is a well-paced, entertaining Romeo and Juliet that captures the spirit of the play while providing a fresh take and exposing the New York theater scene to a diverse cast of talented actors. I look forward to seeing what classic play Hypokrit takes on next – I would love to see them apply the Bollywood sensibility to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Hypokrit Theater Company’s Romeo and Juliet is playing at the Access Theater at 380 Broadway from February 7 to February 22, with performances at 8 PM on Wednesdays through Sundays and 2 PM performances on Saturdays and Sundays.