Sunday, September 28, 2008

Romeo and Juliet get Punk'd

Last week, I attended the all stag production of Romeo and Juliet at The Shakespeare Theatre Company. Because I am a firm believer in equality among the sexes, yesterday I popped into Taffety Punk's subversively cast production of the same play (their version is all female). I thought that comparisons between the two, though odious, would be inevitable, but I was wrong. The Punk production does not invite much comparison to their big-budget brother across town. This all-female version is much more reminiscent of the four character re-imagining of the play which ran at the Folger years ago, Shakespeare's R & J. That adaptation by Joe Calarco has since been making the rounds all over the country, as an alternative to traditional productions of the classic. In it, four prep school boys enact the play, portraying all the characters. The Taffety Punk production strongly reminded me of that production.

The set here suggests a simple jungle gym, complete with chain swing, similar to one which can be seen on any school playground. When the ladies make their entrance in the first crowd scene ("do you bite your thumb at me?"), it's unavoidably apparent that these are girls playing the roles. These initial scenes, indeed all the scenes, were clearly inhabited by women pretending to be men, a situation which might logically arise in an all-girl school. That impression was reinforced for me by the fact that all the actresses in the show seem oh so young.

When I claimed that comparisons are odious, I was telling the truth. That has never stopped me from making them. I'm happy to report that this week, I saw two of the strongest Romeos I've encountered. I already mentioned the wonderfully named Finn Wittrock, playing the role at The Shakes, and now I have to say that Rahaleh Nassri, playing for the girls' team, is every bit as effective. Among a group of ladies who know their stuff, she was the standout, and was the one who made me forget I was watching a woman. I'm pretty surprised to have so thoroughly enjoyed both Romeos, as the role is usually the one that makes me roll the eyes a bit. Most productions portray our hero as a bit of a wimp. Grow a pair already! No need with these versions. Both Wittrock and Nassri already have a pair.

Oh, here's a fun fact I learned last night after seeing the show. The actors playing the role of Mercutio at the different theatres are roommates. Go here to listen to a short interview with the dueling Shakespeares on WAMU. During rehearsals, that place must have been a Mab house.

On the local Rialto, there was some legitimate grumbling among actresses regarding the Shakes' announcement that their season opener would be all-male. Who could blame them? Women get short shrift in classical theatre, and Shakespeare is the worst offender, providing only two or three female roles in most of his tragedies.

So let's do some math. By casting men in the women's roles in R & J, The Shakes robbed four women of jobs. Taffety Punk, by casting women in the male roles, robbed over a dozen men of jobs. But I'm not bitter (much), they deserve to play a bit of catch-up.

But here's an irony: though minor, the role of Lady Montague has a couple of lines in the first scene, and appears without lines in another. The Shakespeare Theatre fleshed those out a bit, handing her more to do throughout the play, and actor Jeffrey Kuhn played the additional moments nicely.

Taffety, the company which set out to give more opportunities for actresses in the play, cut the character completely.

I confess that decision, though odd, may reinforce the very positive reaction I had to the work of Lise Bruneau, who directed the Taffety production. The direction, in fact, was for me the strongest aspect of the show. Bruneau, operating with a minimal budget I'm sure, may have made the decision to dispense with Romeo's mother due to casting restraints; most in her ensemble are already playing multiple roles.

One of their regular actors, however, is not. I wish the Punks might have given another role to one of their own. I have no doubt Paper Bag would have been a terrific Lady Montague.