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An Inventive Romeo and Juliet

The strength of the Nola Project‘s Shakespeare productions has been their homemade inventiveness. The company has used it wits and creativity to overcome budgetary restrictions, usually to effective results. In the production of Romeo and Juliet that opens tonight at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the cast circumvented the cost of scabbards by sheathing their swords through metal eyes clipped to their belt loops. A byproduct of this solution is a proper metal-on-metal scraping made when swords are drawn, but there was a downside. During a preview performance, Balthasar’s hilt-heavy sword tilted forward and fell out, prompting the out performers to keep a hand, wrist or arm on their swords to keep them in place for the rest of the play.

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This spring, the Nola Project staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream in NOMA’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden to great effect; this time it largely inhabits the museum’s Great Hall with equal intelligence. The room’s wide-open space becomes a host of settings, each made clear enough by the characters onstage and how they enter. The stairs and balcony add dramatic possibilities, used particularly effectively when Juliet (Kristin Witterschein)  is on the second floor flirting with Romeo (Alex Martinez Wallace) below. The wide walkways allow her the room to move with giddy adrenaline, unable to stand still for the excitement of new love. The hall provided enough space for a dance number, a funereal platform and a sword fight or two, though occasionally the Montague posse consumed great swaths of space for little clear reason except to occupy as much of it as possible.

The challenge the room poses is its boxy echo. All the performers wore soft-soled shoes, I suspect to minimize the echoed footsteps. As it was, a few performers’ lines were still lost in the room’s natural reverb, most notably those of Friar John (James Yeargain), whose accent also conspired against him.

The performances range from naturalistic to fairly stylized – the shortcoming of the company – and in general, the Montagues tilt toward high drama. Wallace plays Romeo in a constant state of extreme emotions and captures an essential truth of the play – that it’s about dramatic teens. I only wish the wardrobe or other aspects of the production would have highlighted this as well. The costumes generally suggested that the families were well-to-do, but sweaters, vests and sport coats added rather than subtracted years from the actors, obscuring this dimension of the drama that explains the seemingly random energy of the Montague lads.

Still, the “Hey gang! Let’s put on a show!” vibe wins the day. It’s likely that Francesca McKenzie played Gregory not to make any statement about gender but because she’s good, she’s game, and somebody had to do it. The sword fights were high on energy and the fun of jumping around and banging swords, but they had their clunky moments. The solution for how to deal with blood is creative, and the Prince’s entrance likely cracked up the company when someone thought of it.

Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet is an intimate viewing experience. Between 50 and 75 chairs ring the Great Hall between its pillars, and the performance takes place on all sides of the audience (though to the actors’ credit, never so close as to make audience members uncomfortable). It plays this weekend and next, and while it’s not as spot-on a production as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s still a charming, winning performance that was ultimately moving.

Romeo and Juliet plays in NOMA’s Great Hall December 8, 10, 11, 15, 17 and 18. Seating starts at 6:30 p.m.; shows begin at 7:30. Tickets are on sale now at NOMA.Eventbrite.com.