Who knew Hell could be so funny? Funny for the audience, that is. Not so much for poor Romeo and Juliet, who wake in the Infernal Abyss after the events of Shakespeare's tragical romance and find themselves repetitively serenaded by Tony from West Side Story, singing "Maria." Not being conversant with 20th century musical theatre, the star-crossed lovers don't see the connection, but they soon have everything explained to them by Mercutio and Tybalt (who are getting along surprisingly well, considering their recent contretemps).
The situation boils down to is this: Hell is nothing like the Sunday-school depiction; rather, it is the repository of the Shakespeare characters who died in his plays. That's right: Romeo and Juliette in Hell - the latest effort from Force of Nature Productions - is a meta-play that depicts its fictional characters as fictional characters. Listening to Tony for eternity is a personal Hell for Juliet and her fair Romeo, but there is another alternative: if they can endure a staged recreation of their lives, performed by other Shakespeare characters, they can move into the general population of Hades.
The fire-and-brimstone production of Romeo and Juliet is overseen by Bob Fosse, who for some reason presides over the netherworld. His presence is another hint - as if any were needed - that theatre, particularly Broadway, provides the grist for Romeo and Juliet in Hell's comedy mill. The humor is not exactly esoteric, but a familiarity with at least the Cliff Notes versions of Shakespeare will certainly help audience members catch insider references that fly like rapid-fire machine gun bullets. (For example, when introducing themselves, the characters are loath to identify the Thane of Glamis by name, because we all should know that Shakespeare's "Scottish Play" is cursed.) So, basically, if you're wondering why everyone else is laughing when Othello gets worked up over a reference to a handkerchief, you just not getting it.
Fortunately, the main comedy strategy is clear enough, even to the uninitiated: once the recreation of Romeo and Juliet's life begins, most of the humor flows from the casting of other Shakespeare characters in the play-within-a-play. Mercutio and Tybalt trading places with each other is the least of it; the "actors" keep forgetting their roles and lapsing into their "real" personas, with hilarious results, which come in two forms: the casting is either ridiculously incongruent (Lady Macbeth as Juliet) or ridiculously appropriate (Hamlet as Romeo). Perhaps the best example is when Hamlet, playing Romeo on the verge of committing suicide, delivers his famous "To Be or not to be" soliloquy and, instead of being intrusive, it fits perfectly.
Although the plot of Romeo and Juliet in Hell sounds like a premise for a wacky five-minute Monty Python sketch, it actually sustains a full-length play thanks to consistently funny dialogue and the unflagging energy of the performers. In an ensemble cast that hits all the right notes, Therese Olson hits them a bit more fortissimo, her wild-eyed Lady Macbeth wound about six coils too tight.
The end result is a little bit frothy, which is not an insult, just a way of saying that the emphasis is on absurd humor for its own sake, not for the purpose of deconstructing the original text or divining new insights about Shakespeare's work. Hopefully, Romeo and Juliet in Hell's writer-director Matt Ritchey will target Andrew Lloyd Webber next.
Romeo and Juliet in Hell Rating
Credits: Written and Directed by Matt Ritchey. Cast: Kawika Aguilar, Colton Butcher, Carlos Chavez, David Chernyavsky, Jonathan Cho, Jennifer Novak Chun, Lauren Diaz, Ron Gabaldon, Nick Ley, Mikael Mattsson, Sebastian Muñoz, Therese Olson, Graydon Schlichter, Brenton Sullivan, Chloe Zubiri.
Romeo and Juliet in Hell continues on Fridays and Saturday at 8:30pm through November 23. The Actors Workout Studio is located at 4735 Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. Get more info here: fonproductions.com/romeo-and-juliet-in-hell.