Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
directed by Lise Bruneau
produced by Taffety Punk Theatre Company
reviewed by Tim Treanor
Taffety Punk presents its all-woman production of Shakespeare’s great Romeo and Juliet as a revenge play. Unfortunately, it is meant as revenge against the Shakespeare Theatre for its all-male production of the same play. People! Can’t we all just get along?
Look. William Shakespeare is to writing what Albert Einstein is to theoretical physics, and Sugar Ray Robinson is to boxing, and Romeo and Juliet is one of his best plays. Occasionally, as in Washington Shakespeare’s naked and feral MacBeth, a radical rethinking of a play will illuminate Shakespeare’s intention, or be otherwise provocative. More often, though, it is merely theater professionals, showing off. Shakespeare Theatre’s dubious decision to cast men in the play’s four female roles compromises the narrative flow of this play; Taffety Punk’s decision to cast women in the play’s fifteen male roles sinks it entirely.
Understand that this production is stuffed with excellent actors – including Kimberly Gilbert (who plays Mercutio), one of the best actors in Washington. It does not matter. Romeo and Juliet is meant to be played out against the hypermasculine environment of 16th – century Verona, where a young man and a young woman discover the numbing power of love in a culture of violence. The very first scene has Lord Montague’s henchmen celebrating war and aggressive sexuality. “I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men, I will be cruel with the maids, and cut off their heads … aye , the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads,” says the buffoonish coward Sampson. Sabrina Mandell does as well with these lines as might be imagined, thrusting her hips at the appropriate moment, but you cannot escape the knowledge that this is a woman, who will not be taking any maidenheads anytime soon.
The fine actors who play the men in this production manage to disguise their sexual identifiers, but they do not, and cannot, put on the sexual identifiers of men. There are no beards; no deep harsh voices; no testosterone-defined musculature. Their lucid voices are pitched at a level post-pubescent men seldom reach. At its best, it seems like a production from a school for extraordinarily precocious twelve-year-old boys, where members of the faculty assume the women’s roles.
The production – I will assume your familiarity with the plot (if you are not familiar, I summarize it in my review of the Shakespeare Theatre’s production here) suffers, not only from the disadvantage it audaciously puts upon itself, but from other miseries as well. One is the size of the stage. While the Capital Hill Arts Workshop can do wonders for cleverly-staged work (Catalyst did great things with it for years) it is simply not large enough for a play as enormous as Romeo and Juliet. The tiny stage cruelly victimizes the party scene at Lord Capulet’s house, where the crucial confrontation between Capulet (Tonya Beckman Ross) and Tybalt (Abby Wood) is played upstage, and almost lost among all the goings-on during the party. (In a bit of in-joke tomfoolery, the part of Rosalind, Juliet’s predecessor in Romeo’s heart, is played by a paper bag). Similarly, the small space limits the good work that fight choreographer Lorraine Ressegger might have otherwise done, particularly in the battle between Tybalt and Mercutio.
Here’s another problem: Romeo and Juliet, notwithstanding the prologue’s promise to deliver the story in “the two hours’ traffic of our stage”, the play is long – damn long. To get the play to clock in at two and a half hours, director Bruneau has her actors deliver their lines at a furious pace, and vault on stage for their scenes, sometimes with furniture, before the previous scene is entirely finished. The racehorse pace appears to impair Juliet (Kelsey Rae Grouge) the most. Although her infatuation with Romeo (Rahaleh Nassri, interestingly twitchy) seems real enough, the other elements of this deep and subtle character – her dread over her match with Paris, the way she fears her father, her resoluteness in accepting Friar Lawrence’s bizarre plot – are obscured by Grouge’s rapid delivery.
But the principal affliction that affects most of these good actors is that they are asked to be something they manifestly are not, which is to say, men. Even Gilbert, taking on the difficult role of Mercutio, appears to have bitten off more than she can chew. Mercutio is a steam-engine of a man, who vents through his mouth, in a torrent of words. He appears, at bottom, to be a cauldron of sexual frustration; some productions interpret him to be latently gay, with eyes for Romeo. Gilbert can be many things, but it is too much to ask her to be a frustrated gay man. She hits the right buttons, but it seems calculated. She acts, in this role only, by the book of arithmetic.
Michelle Shupe also encounters difficulties with the complex role of Friar Lawrence. Lawrence is a conflicted man, a manipulator, certainly, and full of ambition, but also Romeo’s true friend, and a wise one. He is a proud man; but in Shupe’s rendering, he seems smug. Shupe’s Lawrence hectors Romeo more than he advises him, and in the scene in which the Capulets and Paris weep over Juliet’s seemingly deceased body, Lawrence, rather than positioning himself to take control, seems merely impatient.
The best work is done by women in women’s roles. Toni Rae Brotons does an excellent nurse, earthy and self-possessed; an object of mirth, to be sure, but shrewd and pragmatic. Some of her line reads are brilliantly inventive – in particular one in which she tells her young assistant to wait at the gate while she talks with Juliet. Normally this is a throwaway line, but Brotons invests it with raunchy suggestion. Taffety Punk also did well by itself in casting Erin Sloan as Lady Capulet, and Julia Brandeberry and Esther Williamson do very good turns as Paris and Benvolio, respectively.
Romeo and Juliet is full of imbedded clues, which suggest an even larger story. Deep in the play we learn that Mercutio was a kinsman to the Prince, and later that Paris was a cousin to Mercutio. This might explain Lord Capulet’s sudden urgency to marry Juliet to Paris, right after his kinsman Tybalt kills Mercutio. As a throwaway line early in the first Act, we learn that Rosalind is a niece of Lord Capulet’s, which suggests that Romeo has eroticized danger…or that marriage to a Capulet niece is materially different than marriage to a Capulet daughter. There is a cornucopia of information which might lead the adventuresome mind to generate a new take on Romeo and Juliet. None of them, however, suggest that the play should be cast with all men or all women.
Let me add a caveat, though. While I didn’t like this show, you might. My evening’s companion, a good amateur actor and director, liked this show a great deal more than I did, and you might well be more of his mind than mine. If it were sixty dollars then I would say no, but this production costs only ten bucks a throw. I say if you’re curious, you ought to go. Then write me and tell me if you liked the show.
Running Time: Two hours thirty minutes, including one intermission.
When: Monday, September 22 and Thursdays through Saturdays at 7.30 p.m. through October 4. Additional matinees on Saturdays at 3.
Where: Capital Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St. SE, Washington, D.C.
Tickets: $10. Call 202.261.6612 or e-mail [email protected].
More Information: www.taffetypunk.com.