Chris Bannow and Craig Wesley Divino
in Romeo and Hamlet
(© Gustavo Monroy)
Chris Bannow and Craig Wesley Divino
in Romeo and Hamlet
(© Gustavo Monroy)
What if Romeo, soon after meeting Juliet, fell in love at first sight with Hamlet instead? That's the situation presented in Romeo and Hamlet, a clever and consistently entertaining Shakespearean-style comedy that is currently performing at the June Havoc Theatre as the opening entry in the 4th Annual GAYFEST NYC.

The nifty, high-concept script by R. Jonathan Chapman and Kevin Stefan -- which serves up a darkly brooding Hamlet (Craig Wesley Divino) happily lovestruck by Romeo (Chris Bannow) -- is part cut-and-paste Shakespearean verse and part Shakespearean-style invention. A good deal of its fun is in its re-purposing of well-known situations and speeches from the two classic plays to serve its new story of marriage equality.

For instance, the name Montague becomes synonymous with gay; the ghost of Hamlet's father reveals that homophobia was the motivation for his murder; Mercutio (Amy Jackson) and Benvolio (Eve Danzeisen) are world-wise lesbians. And as an Ophelia-like Juliet (Ellen Adair) identifies love as the source of Hamlet's madness, she wonders if his attraction is "To me, or not to me?"

Then again, some of the show's biggest laughs have nothing to do with the queer revisionism, such as when Friar Laurence (Kate Levy, also excellent as Gertrude), brings way too many options for Hamlet to poison the King, or when Rosencrantz (the hilarious Phillip Taratula) is forced into service as actor but hasn't a clue how to do it.

Although the merging of Shakespeare's two plots will tickle those familiar with the original plays, and will also make clear narrative sense to the uninitiated, the mash-up isn't always smooth. We lose touch with Hamlet's obsession to avenge his father's death, which makes the scene of the play-within-a-play a bit beside the point. And Romeo no longer has action that illuminates his character and expresses the depth of his passion; there's not much for him to do here besides make puppy eyes at Hamlet and to deal with Juliet's unhinged jealousy.

Under Sidney J. Burgoyne's direction, the game, consistently delightful performers wisely refrain from overdoing the wordplay. Even the most blunt of lines, such as Mercutio's that she cares not for the crowing of the cock, are delivered in the right bawdy spirit. And if our heroes have been made to come off less obsessive than The Bard ever intended, that's a small price to pay for the show's many comic pleasures.