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Oh, maybe not in every production at every company, but at one time or another anyone who’s worked on (or in back of) a stage has run across the kind of outsize insecurities, unrestrained egotism, unbridled scene-stealing, and rampant button-pushing that enliven Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ knowingly funny Playing Juliet/Casting Othello.
The lights go up on a rehearsal of a Romeo & Juliet that, when it should be coming together a week or so before opening night, is instead coming apart at the seams. The veteran stage manager constantly second-guesses the greenhorn director in front of the cast; the invariably tardy Juliet has chronic stomach troubles (and trouble stomaching her Romeo, who’s a failed soap actor taking his first stab at Shakespeare). Romeo, meanwhile, is making moves on the Nurse, while his dad, who’s on the theater’s board, keeps calling to check that his recovering-addict offspring hasn’t slipped off the wagonand that’s only the first few minutes of the first of these two playlets. All in all, it’s the most fun you’ve had backstage since Noises Off.
Not that it’s a farce; not by any means. Jennings, a drama professor at American University, sends us to sit in on rehearsals for this Romeo (and a subsequent Othello) so we can watch her characters wrestle more or less seriouslybut never self-righteouslywith issues of race and relationships, creativity and communication. We’re meant to be reminded that our worst fears and doubts only worsen when we don’t talk them out with the people who matter to us, and that many of them come to nothing when examined in the light. But the play never preaches; Jennings’ sense of timing and her knack for balancing humor and heart make the evening feel as light at times as a boulevard comedy.
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The really delicious thing about Juliet/Othello is the way Jennings keeps turning corners you don’t quite expect. Just when you’ve decided, for instance, that Kila D. Burton’s irascible Georgia is the latest in that Esther Rolle-to-S. Epatha Merkerson line of blunt-talking, no-sass-taking black heroines, she goes and confesses to what’s really bothering her: She’s literate enough to be intoxicated by Shakespeare’s language and ambitious enough to leap at Juliet after a career of “sluts and sidekicks,” but she’s also human enough to be terrified that audiences won’t buy a dark-skinned, broad-featured black woman in the role. And her colleagues’ well-meaning assurances about her unique beauty aren’t immediately helpful: “Don’t you even say ‘classic African features,’” she snaps.
It doesn’t help that her live-in lover, suspicious of theater on principle, has threatened to leave her if she insists on doing the part; his objections feed her insecurities, though as it turns out they’re based on an entirely different (and entirely comical) set of assumptions about what audiences and actors get from taking in or putting on a play.
This being a comedy, Georgia and her boyfriend are able to confront and resolve their differences by the end of the act; everyone else pairs off, too, as neatly as any six Shakespearean lovers might, setting the same stage for fresh conflicts in the second act.
Or, I should say, second playlet; Playing Juliet and Casting Othello were apparently written some years apart, which makes it all the more remarkable that they fit together as neatly as they do. (My only complaint is that Dave, the stage manager character, isn’t entirely consistent. I don’t think it’s Steve Lebens’ performance, either; a more or less agreeable character just becomes a stuffy elitist between acts.)
In any case, we come back to discover the former Romeo (Jeff Mandon) directing an Othello production someone proposed in the first act; Wendy, the harassed Romeo & Juliet director (Susan Lynskey), is doing Desdemona, while stage-manager Dave has turned into the most uptight Iago in history, in part because he and Wendy, who fell for each other in the first half, have broken up during intermission. Juliet’s nurse (Rachel D. Spaght), who’s still dating Romeo, is Bianca, while a pregnant Georgia, fresh from her Juliet triumph, finds herself playing the maid again as Emilia.
And the Othello? He has quit. Back to the top of Act 1, anyone?
As this production, too, threatens to disintegrate with 12 days to opening, a surprise solution presents itself in the person of Jimmy (Scott Leonard Fortune)Georgia’s former lover, now her husband, who has gone from being deeply skeptical about theater in general to being bitten bad by the acting bug, much to Georgia’s annoyance and frustration. He’s untrained and uneducated, and he’s bigfooting on territory Georgia thought was hers alone, but (because this is a comedy) it turns out he’s got natural talent and a fresh perspective on this greatest of Shakespearean characters.
It all sounds a little sitcomish on paper, but confident, ingratiating performances (especially from Fortune, who’s effortlessly natural) make it easy to swallow. Director Lisa Rose Middleton keeps them all moving briskly, which helps.
And there’s more to their machinations than there might appear: Jennings tucks insightful deconstructions of Romeo and Othello in between the wise-ass asides, and of course she embellishes both playlets with quotations (not, thank goodness, too many of the obvious ones) from both classics; there’s even a measure of bawdiness, which is perfectly appropriate in any Shakespeare-related effort. In this entirely satisfying bonbon, Jennings makes two tragedies add up to one affectionate, agreeable homage to the Bard and his devotees, and to the peculiarities and problems of both. CP