There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Tuesday, July 16, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, July 17, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, July 21, 4 p.m.
Sunday, July 21, 7:30 p.m.
Monday, July 22, 7:30 p.m.
Tuesday, July 23, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, July 24, 7:30 p.m.
They say: “We Happy Few continues its tradition of stripped-down classics with this eight-actor take on Shakespeare’s timeless love story, Romeo and Juliet. Strengthened by love, Juliet seeks to forge her own destiny in a world dominated by the wills of men.”
Rachel K’s Take:
Romeo and Juliet, you’ve seen it,
But never so real and bursting with life.
Seven actors, one actress, the roles split
Showing harsh manhood as the root of strife.
From prideful display to violent outburst,
Men, as foes of others, hurt their own selves.
Juliet’s refusal to be coerced
Makes her wizened and weary as she delves.
Shakespeare’s lines rarely sounded so visceral
With the staging creative and intense,
Though one fight was too close to literal
This play resonates, and its grip never relents:
Kids die when peace, so feminized, is a crime.
Ninety minutes, no break, pee before show time.
There is no play so thoroughly rehashed than Romeo and Juliet. So imagine my surprise when We Happy Few’s take on the classic somehow felt fresh and visceral. When Romeo tells Juliet that “parting is such sweet sorrow,” during the famous balcony scene, it almost feels improvised. It is a revelation.
We Happy Few pares down Shakespeare classics, and this production of Romeo and Juliet is no exception—-shaving half an hour off the regular “two hours’ traffic of our stage.” With only eight performers, all but those playing our star-crossed lovers serve double-duty, and Juliet (Raven Bonniwell) is the only woman.
This testosterone overload is by design. We Happy Few wants to emphasize the way that violent masculinity leads to the bloodbath at the end of this tragic tale. And, unlike reinterpretations of Shakespeare that take place in nonsensical locales like a space station or the Wild, Wild West, this decision is incredibly effective for one simple reason—-it actually enhances the text.
Take the big fight scene that results in (spoiler alert) the deaths of Mercutio (William Vaughan) and Tybalt (Nathan James Bennett). Right after Romeo tries to stop the fighting, accidentally causing Mercutio’s death, he cries out “O sweet Juliet, thy beauty hath made me effeminate!” In the context of the production, a corollary of that line is even more fascinating—-that only bloodlust can validate machismo.
Bonniwell plays Juliet with a wry sense, as if she’s the kind of person who watches plays like Romeo and Juliet and takes notes. Her savvy makes her demise all the more tragic, because many of her lines sound prophetic in a way they never did before.
Listening to Romeo (Sean Hudock), Benvolio (Kiernan McGowan) and Mercutio joke with one another about sex sounds like a true wordsmith’s version of Barstool Sports. The way the actors, especially Vaughan, make these men seem as though they could be hanging at McFadden’s is uncanny. Mercutio’s famous Queen Mab speech resonates in a new way, showing how men fight with the expectations of manhood, and that his longing for dreams that will “blow them from themselves” and a tightly controlled society will ultimately turn him into worm’s food.
The entire cast is responsible for breathing new life into these well-known characters, but special kudos to Chris Genebach for finding fascinating contours in Lord Capulet. In this version he, rather than Friar Lawrence, plays the part of tragic hero.
Under the direction of Hannah Todd, the play is well-staged and quick-moving. The fight scenes are creative, though you might want to bring protective glasses—-one weapon went flying into the audience. Luckily, no one was hurt and tragedy was averted. The fair people of Verona, however, remain on a crash course with woe.
See it if: You want to find the humanity in the characters you’ve read on the page.
Skip it if: You like your Shakespeare without adaptation, or you’ve just drank a large iced coffee (I cannot stress this enough—-use the restroom before the show begins)