Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Look Out for Cooties

Here in DC, currently there are dueling Romeos and Juliets (and Mercutios and Tybalts and Nurses and Friars and even Apothecaries), as the gigantor Shakespeare Theatre Company's all male production is playing opposite scrappy, nefarious Taffety Punk's all female version.

Guess which one this is...

The production at The Shakes has lots going for it: huge cast of gifted linguists, lots of nifty set pieces being swept on and off stage by spear carriers (or in this case, barrel rollers; the set consists of lots and lots and lots of wine barrels), and a really swell Romeo. The kid playing our hero here (Finn Wittrock, who also wins the Best Name Award...wasn't "Finn Wittrock" the name of the fisherman on The Flintstones?) is really one of the best Romeos I've seen. He and his Juliet, a young man named James Davis, are two bundles of angsty adolescence, never standing still, throwing emotional fits, and basically enacting spoiled teen-agers being told, for the first time, "No." They are fun interpretations, though I did wish I could tie Juliet's hands behind her/his back for at least one speech, just to see what would happen.

I have to admit that these two actors were better apart than together; there didn't seem to be much passion generated between the two. I don't blame this on the fact that they are the same gender; genuine human passion is commonly lacking in the huge productions at The Shakes. Terrific work is being done by stalwart Ted van Griethuysen as Friar Lawrence, and Aubrey Deeker continues to impress as Mercutio. Deeker has been at The Shakes for the better part of the past year playing a nice variety of roles, but I look forward to the time he returns to contemporary stagings; his performance in Mary's Wedding at Theatre Alliance many years ago remains one of my favorite DC performances.

But back to Romeo and Jules. Director David Muse (isn't that a great name for an artist: Muse?) has mentioned in interviews that his purpose in casting an all-male version of this extremely romantic, sexual play, is to return the play to its roots, to display a production similar to the one which Shakespeare himself first saw (he said "similar" to the original staging, not a bona fide recreation...though they are not using women in this production, they are using electricity).

The truth is that I forgot about the gender-bending a few minutes into the play, which I believe was one of the production's triumphs. Which begs the question, if in fact the actors are skilled enough to allow the audience to accept them as women, forgetting that they are men, what is the point of the all-male casting, exactly?

I freely admit I don't get it. That is, I didn't see any artistic truths emerge from the decision to exclude the ladies from the proceedings. All-male versions of Shakespeare are no longer unusual; there are entire repertory companies devoted to the style these days. There has been talk that the play is hugely masculine, and by casting men, that masculinity is placed front and center for the audience to see. There seems some logic in that, except for the fact that we forget we are watching all-men almost immediately, so couldn't the same result be had with traditional casting?

Well, I'm sure The Shakes is getting much more publicity from this version than a traditional one. They are trumpeting the production as their first all-male Shakespearean play, and that's true enough, but they have certainly dabbled with gender-bending in the past. Years ago, Kelly McGillis's Measure for Measure featured a man playing Mistress Overdone, and a little later, actor Dallas Roberts played Bianca in Taming of the Shrew (I can't begin to understand why that casting decision was made).

And of course, the most famous of The Shakespeare Theatre's cross-gendering was the casting of comedienne Pat Carroll as Falstaff and Volpone.

When the announcement was made that The Shakespeare Theatre Company's season opener would be estrogen-free, the local Rialto buzzed with the injustice of it all. In response, Taffety Punk is mounting (pardon the pun) its No Men Allowed version, which I will be seeing later this week. Perhaps the audience will be filled with straight men looking for some hot Girl-on-Girl action. Which leads me to the following observation: I'm sure there is one thing upon which both the Multi-Million Dollared Shakespeare Theatre and the Poverty Prone Taffety Punks will agree:

...whatever puts butts in seats!

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