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Shakespeare in Love? Now comes Shakespeare in Rock!
"Romeo and Juliet: Tribal" sets the Bard's text to rockin', stompin' rock music

April 15-25, La MaMa E.T.C. (The Club), 74A East Fourth Street
Thursdays through Saturdays at 10:00 pm and Sundays at 5:00 pm
$12, (212) 475-7710
Stomp meets Shakespeare in "Romeo and Juliet: Tribal," a rock 'n roll version of the classic that is heavy on percussion, conceived and directed by William Electric Black, a three-time Emmy Award winner (for "Sesame Street"). The production features a cast of 25, live music arranged by Val Ghent and tribal rhythms and percussion by Ben Orlick.

The text is all Shakespeare's in this production, which is described by Mr. Black as "rhythmically driven." Black performed frequently at La MaMa in the early '70s in plays directed by Andrei Serban and Ozzie Rodriguez. He is choreographer, composer and director of this piece. He describes the piece as "tribal" in the sense that "Hair" was labeled a "tribal rock musical." "Romeo and Juliet: Tribal" is meant to be taken that way, and also a little more literally: its Capulets and Montagues are rival urban tribes. The families are even decked out in weird outfits evocative of apocalyptic New York, like cereal box necklaces.

Some of the music is chanted and some is sung; there are twelve songs taken "right from the dialogue." Song styles include reggae, gospel, rap, pop, R&B and rock ballads. It's a show where rhythm rules: there is a tap number at the Capulet party and there are heartbeat motifs in the sound score when the families meet. Percussion enhances the fight scene and supports the characters' actions. There is no set: the scenery is created with physical theater, as when the cast collectively lifts Juliet skyward to establish her balcony. (When she swoons after taking the potion, it is onto a bed of actors.) Occasionally there are found objects used, as when the cast adds atmosphere in the Friar Lawrence scene by blowing into glass bottles. The choreography is primarily gestural and jazzy, la Fosse, with "a lot of hand gestures and head flicks."

William Electric Black has staged earlier versions of "Romeo and Juliet: Tribal" several times before, once in the '80s at the Entermedia Theater's small showcase stage, once in Bridgehamption, NY and once at Brockport State College. His other New York shows include "Billy Stars and Kid Jupiter," a sci-fi jazzical at Theater for the New City, and "The Sun Gets Blue," another jazzical staged at the Open Eye.

Valerie Ghent is musical arranger/director of the project. She is a singer/songwriter whose CD, "Unstoppable," was named Best CD of 1998 by Belgian Radio/Planete Indie. She tours with Ashford & Simpson playing keyboards and singing backup.

Percussion arrangements by Ben Orick aim to "give Shakespeare's poetic structures a new beat." He was born in Lagos, Nigeria and is influenced by that country's Yoruba drummers. But he got started by playing traps during junior high school, jamming with break dancers and scratch DJs at parties in the projects where he lived. He developed a style based on R&B and British heavy rock which he calls "Bernard Purdie meets John Bonham." He has recorded with The Nitecaps, Valerie Ghent ("Unstoppable"), CK Thrill, Christ Complex and The Rings.

Costumes are by fashion designer Edward Fields and theater, radio and TV producer Francesca Raymond. They aim to give the Capulats and Montagues an electrifying, hot look that supports Mr. Black's dynamic, physical theater staging. [NYTW]

Related article: La MaMa sets 1998-99 season schedule

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