Playwright: William Shakespeare/Felice Romani. At: The Hypocrites at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets: 773-989-7352; www.the-hypocrites.com; $36. Runs through: July 1
If Sean Graney's wedding of Dumas' La Dame Aux Camélias with Verdi's La Traviata in 2004 could be dubbed a mash-up, this amalgamation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Felice Romani's libretto for Bellini's I Capuleti e I Montecchi is a jambalaya. Imagine feeding both texts through a shredder and then reconstructing the venerable story from the fragments, or recounting the tragic tale of star-crossed lovers as a children's telephone-game. Astonishingly enough, it all emerges whole, coherent and extremely entertaining.
The Shakespeare play is based on a feud between families, but Romani hearkens to the earlier 13th-century Italian version, in which the Montecchi and Capuleti are rival political factions, with Romeo and his sidekick Lorenzo leading the armies rebelling against the incumbent rule of Guilietta's father, Capellio. That's all you need to know, because under Graney's direction, four actors in rehearsal clothes take on all the roles, their stage a room-sized rug (we, the audience, are the surrounding walls), augmented by a '50s-style pole-lamp; some likewise vintage audio equipment; and furniture that includes a butcher-block coffee table holding four sturdy swords.
For 80 minutes, this quartet proceeds to enact the timeless tragedy at warp speed, dancing between their respective scripts with occasional forays into modern vernacular ("You're really creepy, boy!") while melding multiple characters into single functioning personalities. "Romeo's sidekick," for example, combines parts of Benvolio, Friar Lawrence and the Nurse. This inevitably leads to a certain amount of self-referential humor, as when a dying Mercutio accuses his assassin of "stealing my life and my lines!"
What distinguishes these antics from those of comparative-lit undergrads on a spree the day after finals ("Oh, Paris, you're such a pussy!") is the disciplined precision exhibited by the artists tackling material rendered difficult by its rearrangement of familiar language into unfamiliar sequence as they deliver it to spectators seated so close that warnings are issued when Ryan Bourque's cleverly crafted violence is imminent. Walter Briggs, Lindsay Gavel, Tien Doman and Zeke Sulkes never miss a step, maintaining a smooth flow of tempo and momentum so that the infrequent stumble passes virtually undetected, even by theatergoers spurred to peak alertness by the dazzling microcosm flashing before their eyes. However many interpretations of this classroom classic you may have witnessedand the more, the betteryou'll never again see it like this.