You are a Capulet or you are a Montague, and so when you enter the DC Reynolds Bar you get a red cup or a blue cup. Thereafter, in a prelude to the saddest romantic tragedy in all of English literature, you have a drinking game. First you raise your cup, then you chug the contents down, and then you slam it, face down, with its lip hanging over the edge of the table. Then, and only then, do you flip it so that it lands upright.
I wish I had known what the rules were before I filled my cup with Wild Turkey, but that, and my subsequent erroneous flipping of the table, are in the past now. After the uproar died down, the champion of the Capulets, Bess, faced down the champion of the Montagues, Danny, in a flip-off. Bess won, and as a result was permitted to play the role of the County Paris, the despised man Lord Capulet has arranged for his daughter Juliet to marry. Danny was permitted to play Rosalind, which, if you know the play (and I know you do) you will recall has no lines, and also is not permitted to appear on stage.
Thereupon a Shakespeare play breaks out, with modifications. In this version, Mercutio (Noelle Viñas) is a woman, and all of the character’s latent erotic energy is made kinetic. The object of her passion is not Romeo but Benvolio (Yoni Gray), and when she is not castigating Romeo (Josh Adams) or matching flip-cups (the production’s substitute for swordfighting) with Tybalt (Jen Beven), she and her fellow are smooching up a storm.
I know I have ranted in the past against cross-gender casting, but these guys have cast the formidable Rebecca Ellis as Lord and Lady Capulet and – I give up. Ellis actually pulls her double role off pretty smoothly, giving her Lady Capulet a real-housewives-of-Atlanta accent and making Lord Capulet sound suitably like a self-absorbed bastard.
The plot is pretty much the one you remembered from high school. The Montagues and Capulets hate each other down to their genetic material, for unknown reasons. Romeo Montague is passionately in love with Rosalind (Danny) but she doesn’t give a fig for him. Meantime, Lady Capulet informs her daughter Juliet (Loren Bray) that dad has picked out the swell County Paris (Bess) for her husband. Juliet is underwhelmed.
So these two romantically challenged kids meet each other at a party given by Juliet’s dad, and, as the beer commercial says, hubbeda hubbeda. Juliet enlists her Nurse (Tiffany Garfinkle, doing good work) to set up a marriage, and Romeo turns to the shrewd Friar Lawrence (Christopher Holbert) to formalize things. Lawrence, seeing an opportunity to end the Capulet-Montague feud, agrees and soon the deed is done. But Tybalt (a little slow on the uptake) is still angry that Romeo showed up at a Capulet party. He means to fight Romeo but takes on Mercutio instead; Romeo’s attempt to interfere results in Mercutio’s death, and Romeo slays Tybalt in revenge. The reigning Prince (John Stange, who also serves as a sort of master of ceremonies) banishes Romeo.
Friar Lawrence puts together a potion to make Juliet fall into a swoon resembling death (he calls it a Mind Eraser) and will then send a messenger to Romeo to fetch her from the tomb. To speed things up, we then have a series of Shakespeare mad libs to get to the final scene where (spoiler alert) pretty much everybody dies.
This is less Romeo and Juliet than it is Romeo and Juliet, the Drinking Game. That’s OK with me, and it might well be for you, if you have a sense of fun. (Every time we heard the word “Montague” or “Capulet”, Stange would ring a bicycle bell, and we would drain our cups.) The Shakespearean tropes are occasionally altered – when Romeo, who Lawrence was hiding from the authorities, burst out to talk to the Nurse, Friar Lawrence says “what the fuck,” which I think was not in the original text – and we are gifted with rap and an occasional song.
People shouted comments and also texted and talked to each other. The action moved from one end of the bar to the other, and so folks would get up and follow the action. At one point most of us moved out the back door to see the balcony scene, but one couple stayed at the bar and made out. Shakespeare wrote about love, but they were actually experiencing it! And while I watched the balcony scene, I noticed that behind us was – another bar! This one was outdoors, and featured large-screen TVs with college football games playing. The one closest to us had, I think, Oklahoma and West Virginia. Back inside, audience participation took on the full range of aspects. A friend of mine noted that someone came up to him, looking ready to projectile vomit, but thought better of it and moved away.
Still, this is probably not the show for you if actually want to see Romeo and Juliet, or if running from one end of a bar to the other is not your idea of a good time.
R+J: Star-Cross’d Death Match
Closes October 5, 2014
DC Reynolds Bar
3628 Georgia Ave. NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Details and Tickets
There is some good work done by actors under difficult circumstances, but much of that work is drowned by the ambient noise. Viñas is an excellent actor, but too often I could not make out her lines, though I had a general idea what they were. Other actors are similarly handicapped, although Ellis, Stange, Holbert and Gray have very strong voices. Charlie Taphanel is an excellent musician, but I wish the company would rethink having him play background music during dialogue. The noise level is bad enough and the company should not contribute to it.
I want to spend the rest of this review talking about how good Bray is. Brothers and sisters, she is the genuine article. Juliet is a fascinating character; she is, remember, only thirteen, and has an air of innocence about her, but she is immensely intelligent, shrewd and realistic. She recognizes what her parents are up to immediately, and gives a series of evasive answers which would do a Congressman proud. Her passion for Romeo is in part motivated by her desire to stave off the repulsive Paris (sorry, Bess), but it is nonetheless passion in full, profound and sensual.
Bray gets all of this. Though the orientation of this production is considerably more sexual than is traditional, Bray conveys Juliet’s youth and optimism intact. She makes her a girl who becomes a woman because she needs to, and – in a production which prizes self-consciousness and irony – makes her need be a holy thing. In addition, she has a beautiful voice, which penetrates without being shrill and sometimes sounds like the susurrations of the ocean on land. When she sings, she actually quiets the bar, so beautiful are the sounds. To those in the casting business, heed my words. This is someone who should get more work, and right quick.
You didn’t listen to me about Crystal Mosser. You aren’t listening to me about Jase Parker. For God’s sake, listen to me about Loren Bray. She’s not quite at the level of those great artists, but she has a tremendous gift, and we deserve to see more of it.
R+J: Star-Cross’d Death Match, adapted from Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare by Ben Charles and Lori Wolter Hudson (who served as consulting director), directed by Sara Bicker, featuring Josh Adams, Noelle Viñas, Yoni Grade, John Stange, Christopher Holbert, Loren Bray, Rebecca Ellis, Jen Beven, and Tiffany Garfinkle. Music by Charlie Taphanel. Carl Brandt Long was the fight choreographer, and Clem Trott was the stage manager for this production. Produced by LiveArtDC which presented it at the 2014 Capital Fringe Festival. Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
LiveArtDC’s promo video from this summer.