The only thing Shakespearian about Genesis Repertory’s “Romeo and Juliet” is the text itself.
The Bensonhurst theater company’s telling of the British bard’s famous tragedy is not what you read in your high school English class.
Rather, the star cross’d lovers are a Russian-Jewish Romeo from Sheepshead Bay and a Palestinian Juliet from Bay Ridge, the cast wears baseball caps, sneakers, and even hijabs instead of Renaissance style garb; the Montagues and Capulets wield guns instead of swords; and the everyone delivers the iambic pentameter with a Brooklyn accent.
For those familiar with Genesis Rep, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; the company takes Shakespeare’s classics out of their usual theatrical context — a previous production of “Romeo and Juliet” was set in a trailer park — to make them more familiar and, hopefully, more accessible.
“It’s not boring, it’s not prohibitive, it’s not elitist,” said Jay Michaels, who is not only the president of Genesis Rep, but also plays a Montague in new production, which opens May 7. “It’s how Shakespeare meant his plays to be.”
Still, Shakespeare probably didn’t have Nelson Gonzalez in mind when he wrote his Romeo. The 16-year-old Dyker Heights resident didn’t really picture himself in the role either at first.
“I totally pictured Romeo looking like Leonardo DiCaprio,” said Gonzalez, who, with an Italian-Puerto Rican background, also stretches a bit to play a Russian Jew. “Now that I’m Romeo, I feel like I have truly taken on this part, especially since it’s set in Brooklyn.”
Helping set the scene here is the use of video projection on the stage throughout the play, featuring the actors in character on the streets of southern Brooklyn, walking near the Marlboro Houses and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
By trading Verona for Brooklyn, director Mary Elizabeth MiCari is striving for authenticity.
“I don’t want the audience to say, ‘Oh, that’s phony Brooklyn, that’s make-believe gangster stuff,’” said MiCari, who lives in Bay Ridge.
MiCari’s been working with the cast, which consists of both native and non-native New Yorkers, on authenticity in accents and body language.
“There’s a certain toughness about people in Brooklyn. It’s not in Park Slope, but here, where it’s still middle class, native New Yorkers.”
With that streetwise element, you might start seeing Shakespeare’s poetry all around you.
“My ultimate goal is that when you leave the theater and are walking home, you look up and see people in the street and say, ‘That could be Romeo, that could be Juliet,’ ” said Michaels. “Shakespeare is still very viable.”
Genesis Repertory’s “Romeo and Juliet” at The Block Institute [376 Bay 44th St. off of Shore Parkway, (347) 492.0534], May 7-22 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm. Tickets $15. For info, visit www.genesis-repertory.org.