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THEATER 'R & J' puts a female, queer spin on Shakespeare
by Brian Kirst
2024-03-05

This article shared 13607 times since Tue Mar 5, 2024
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Romeo and Juliet is the theatrical gift that keeps on giving.

It's been reworked for the masses numerous times, whether in direct adaptations or musicals such as West Side Story. Shakespeare's plotline points have even inspired General Hospital's current head writers. There, polished and privileged ingénue Joss is being kept, via fate and her Mafioso stepfather, from a soft-whiskered soldier of fortune named Dex.

There have been numerous reworkings of the story catered towards gay men as well. In fact, playwright Joe Calarco's Shakespeare's R & J, a popular reimagining of the tale, was originally conceived with a male-on-male focus. Nicely, Amber Mandley, the director of Pride Arts' current production of the piece, has cast the show with a more queerly feminine intent. Her setting is a private girl's academy in the mid-'70s.

The familiar plot is nicely augmented by this choice. Overwhelmed by traditional and patriarchal teachings, four students venture into the institution's attic one moon-glossed evening. Soon their playful study of Romeo and Juliet turns into a passionate reenacting of the piece.

As each character takes on multiple roles, secrets about their true selves and their relationships with each other are revealed. But when one budding scholar identifies too closely with the tale of the star crossed lovers, will the others support or reject this newfound Sapphic discovery?

As a playwright, Calarco smartly re-conceptualizes and edits out portions of Shakespeare's original text but the familiar story and classic language is still intact. Nicely, this also centers characters that sometimes get lost in more traditional productions. In particular, Juliet's mother emerges in clearer strands here. Her adamancy about social standing and protocol rings with specificity throughout the journey. Thus, the division between Romeo and Juliet and the war between their families wrings with clearer potency here.

Meanwhile, Mandley, along with assistant directors Elissa Wolf & Magdiel Carmona, finds thoughtful ways to poetically signify the violence and mayhem of the piece. Tybalt and Mercutio's deaths are rendered via undulations of a red sheet while the main duo's fates are dealt with in a similarly metaphorical way. Additionally, Shawn Quinlan's costumes help the performers give life to the characters, perfectly reflecting the atmosphere that Mandley creates.

The cast also deserves significant credit for this particular rendering's success. Their way with the familiar speeches is subtle and inventive, adding layers and newfound delights to the experience. Singularly, Luz Espinoza's Juliet excels with a haughty feminism. Isabel Lee Roden brings both comic energy and unabashed fury to the Nurse.

Hannah Eisendrath, meanwhile, is the evening's funniest force, bringing a quirky elegance to all the characters she embodies. But Saturday evening's (March 2) true surprise was Ava Pirie. Seemingly asked to understudy with little notice, she brought a true and flawless beauty to her Romeo, proving why theater is often a place of magic and rare excitement.

As a whole, this lovingly rendered show nicely echoes that sentiment as well.

Shakespeare's R & J runs through March 24th at Pride Arts Center, 4139 N. Broadway. Further information is available at pridearts.org .


This article shared 13607 times since Tue Mar 5, 2024
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