In his new Off-Off Broadway play, John Patrick Shanley – Oscar-winner for “Moonstruck,” Tony and Pulitzer winner for “Doubt” – imagines what it would be like if Romeo and Juliet were both Nuyoricans, and ten years old. There’s a balcony scene and a graveyard scene, but “Candlelight,” which is playing at New Ohio Theater through December 19th, is not just a reworked “Romeo and Juliet”/”West Side Story.” In place of feuding families or gangs, Esperanza and Tito live in a make-believe world of talking mirrors and magical robes, a scantily clad fairy and a heroic squirrel, which the two kids prefer to their other world, in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with their widowed, abusive and pill-addicted parents.
“They tell you, you gotta believe in reality and what’s that but the box they bury you in,” Tito says. “I want more.”
Or as he puts it more succinctly later: “Fuck reality.”
In “Candlelight,” a play about young children that is not suitable for young children, Shanley, um, messes with reality – and clarity — in ways that only Off Off Broadway allows. The results are mixed. The main draw of this production directed by Lori Kee is a terrifically appealing cast.
Marc Reign as a lithe, dance-loving Tito, and Ivette Dumeng as a sassy Esperenza, dance together at Esperanza’s tenth birthday party, and fall in love. The actors are adults who capture the eagerness of youth without overdoing it, even when Shanley gives them dialogue that is unlikely to have ever been uttered by any fifth graders alive (or anybody else for that matter):
Esperanza:…There’s all this sick bad shit, and then there’s us.
Tito: But what do we do? I mean, what can we do? We’re ten.
Esperanza: I know
Tito: I don’t even have hair on my balls yet.
John Cencio Burgos is even better at capturing the essence of a ten-year-old in the role of Paulie. But the character is saddled with a gay subplot that begins sensitively, then straddles the border of offensive, until it tips over.
There are light touches in “Candlelight” – Alexa is a character in Esperanza’s fantasies; at a climactic moment in the story the lovers take a selfie – and some lovely literal allusions to light: Esperanza compares stars in the sky to candelight at one point; at another she tells Tito: “It’s like you’ve lit a candle in me, and now I see everything by its light.” But even most of the fantasy moments are tinged in darkness: Tito’s stove is inhabited by a scary little devil, Esperanza’s bedroom is visited by Satan with a huge red phallus (portrayed by Alfredo Diaz, who also portrays her father Hector, who is Paulie’s tormentor.) Even the beautiful robe (portrayed by Darlene Tejeiro) is devious; she got Esperanza’s mother Colette (also Tejeiro) to jump out the window, and tries to get Esperanza to do the same.
There is a certain cleverness, or at least symmetry, in the way that Shanley translates the children’s day-to-day traumas into their dream life. One can also speculate that the playwright might mean for us to see the whole “Romeo and Juliet” plot as something conjured up by Esperanza in her imagination from a tale she was told (or a version she saw on TV) and only half understood. But the play would need more work for this to be clear. As is, the use of characters so young in a dark romantic tale that borrows from Shakespeare and Leonard Bernstein feels a bit…off.
I admire John Patrick Shanley’s willingness to keep on experimenting, after some forty years as a New York playwright. Some of his recent work has bowled me over (Prodigal Son) ; some has not: The Portuguese Kid). “Candlelight” is somewhere in-between. I do have to admit: Given that Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” is about to open in movie theaters, it is certainly smartly timed.
Nylon Fusion Theater at New Ohio Theater through December 19
Written by John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Lori Kee
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Set and props Design by Elizabeth Chaney, Costume Design by Janet Mervin, Lighting Design by Wilburn Bonnell , Sound Design by Andy Evan Cohen, Projections Design by Janet Bentley, Movement by Tatyana Kot, and Fight Choreography by Randall Rodriguez
Cast: John Cencio Burgos as Paulie and the mirror, Alfredo Diaz as Hector and Satan, Ivette Dumeng as Esperanza, Marc Reign as Tito, Darlene Tejeiro as Colette and the robe, Christina Toth as Mabel the fairy.