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If a rose wearing a “Hi, I’m Cabbage” nametag would nonetheless perfume the air, then why shouldn’t a decent actor in a dress be able to manage a convincing “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” That much being granted, why not a decent actress in a pair of trousers, replying with Romeo’s “Call me but ‘love,’ and I’ll be new baptized”? Acting is artifice, after all: We’re not really in Verona, and nobody ever talked like that anyway.
Besides, cross-cast Shakespeare is (all together now) at least as old as the plays themselves: Boys played the girls in the Bard’s day, so the only truly startling innovation in David Muse’s all-male Romeo and Juliet is the way Finn Wittrock’s puppyish Romeo offs Cody Nickell’s hotheaded peacock of a Tybalt. Not to spoil it, but: The bad guy’s nickname is “Prince of Cats.” And what do cats hate? Roll out the (water) barrel aaaand…cut, and print.
No, what’s perhaps most fun about the STC’s decision to stage a boys-club Romeo is the response it provoked among certain of Washington theater’s swaggering young louts. Led by Lise Bruneau and Marcus Kyd of the Taffety Punk Theatre Company, they’ve banded together to stage an all-female version of the star-crossed lovers’ tale, running concurrently at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. It is, to quote the Punks’ marketing come-on, “An hour shorter, a fraction of the cost, and [with] 100 percent more women.”
To which I say: What’s not to like?
To be specific, I like the way Bruneau teases out the homoeroticism of the Romeo-Mercutio relationship; I like the way Michelle Shupe makes her leisurely way through Friar Laurence’s early-morning herbological ruminations, letting you really hear the rich feminine-Earth metaphors that have always been couched there.
I like the cool arrogance of Abby Wood’s poised, unhurried way with a rapier and the broody thoughtfulness of Rahaleh Nassri’s contained Romeo.
And I especially like the way Bruneau and her costume designers have pointed up the play’s commentary on the Capulets as merchants with an eye on a title. There’s a reason Daddy’s so anxious to get his little girl married off to a count, after all. Being a “rich Capulet” may have been prestige enough in Juliet’s Verona, but in Shakespeare’s London all the wealthy merchants were buying titles—and what better way to one-up your Montague enemies than with a look down a newly ennobled nose?
Bruneau & Co. make it clear that, while heedless, hormonal teenage abandon is still the primary driver of the play’s snowballing tragedy, Capulet’s upwardly mobile haste has much to do with why things get out of hand. So does Muse, for that matter—and the gender-play in both productions also manages to highlight, among other commonalities, the unmotherly response Lady Capulet is forced into when the already-wed Juliet balks at Dad’s plans to hand her off to Paris.
So is one production better than the other? Well, the seasoned pros at the Shakespeare Theatre handle certain bits of language better than the unevenly experienced gaggle at Taffety Punk. Certainly the street fights at the bigger house play with more urgency; the constricted confines of the Capitol Hill space don’t make safe stage combat easy, I expect.
But that intimacy can help as well as hinder. Characters seem rounder, more specific in Bruneau’s reading; I’m not sure I could tell you what kind of teenager Wittrock’s Romeo is when he’s not climbing those steel bars to the balcony at Harman Hall, but Nassri’s young Montague is plainly the introspective sort; his quiet alertness, in the sequences that allow the actress to dwell there, plays nicely in the smaller space.
There’s lyricism to be found at the Harman too, though, not least in the musical punctuations (there’s an onstage ensemble) and in the grace with which Muse stages the courtship sequence at the Capulet ball.
Watch, in that circle dance, how Wittrock’s Romeo and James Davis’ Juliet track each other with their eyes; his are openly avid, hers more disguisedly so, but there’s a visible connection and it tracks coherently throughout a reasonably complicated bit of choreography; you can actually see the relationship begin as the dancers whirl, and that’s no small thing.
Ultimately, I suppose, the gender games going on in the dueling Romeos don’t add up to much— but neither do they subtract. And with a play as sturdy as this one, there’s nothing wrong with having a look through one lens or another. Besides, it’s proof that in a theater town as lively as ours, there’s room for a difference of opinion about a work everybody thinks they know—and that, too, is no small thing.