Star-Crossed Men

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Shakespeare's Single-Sex Casting Exposes'Romeo's' Jewels

Society’s ills are transparent when its conventions are stripped away and its citizens act differently than what is expected. This is what happens when men play the “weaker sex” in the Shakespeare Theatre’s current all-male production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Because “Romeo and Juliet” is usually referenced in our modern world as the ultimate love story, it is easy to forget that Shakespeare packs the script with much more than just sweet sentiment — and audiences watching this production won’t be able to ignore this fact.

The setting of Verona in Shakespeare’s time values might over right and hate over love. The Montagues and Capulets have no patience for sensitivity, reason or vulnerability. This all-male retelling of the play allows us to experience the two families’ nonsensical feud through a different lens — one not colored by gender.

“The play is set in a very consciously constructed masculine world, and a lot of what propels the grudge and the violence be-tween these two families is masculine bravado,” said David Muse, director of the production and an associate director for the company.

So the “boys will be boys” mentality doesn’t work here because the boys are also the girls. Muse makes this point obvious during the prologue when chorus members don dresses, but not their wigs.

Without excuses offered for gender-specific behavior, the classic love story is trumped by Verona’s harsh, brutal world — a society gone mad with machismo — that tears apart the lovers as quickly as a monsoon would rip a leaf from a tree.

No matter one’s preference — seeing the play as it was done in Shakespeare’s day, sans female actors, or with a mixed-gender cast — it is clear this production forces the audience to focus on the larger world of the star-crossed lovers, and less on their idealized courtship.

Muse’s casting choices flesh out this objective. Juliet, played by James Davis, is tall and lean, towering over Romeo, played by Finn Wittrock. Despite donning a beautiful period gown and adopting movements typical of a boy-crazy teenage girl, Juliet’s masculine physique interferes with the audience’s suspension of disbelief — a phenomenon common in the Bard’s time when only male actors were used, which Muse takes advantage of in this modern-day production to shift the focus back on Shakespeare’s words.

“Shakespeare was a writer of gorgeous poetry, but I believe that the love poetry in Romeo and Juliet is especially glorious in part because Shakespeare knew that two young men would be performing it,” Muse said. “Shakespeare knew that he couldn’t count on two actors gazing at each other to portray being in love in a way that audiences were going to believe. And so the actors need to jump into the language and make its power convince us of the power of this love.

“The production immediately becomes an event that has to do with performance and theatricality, the acknowledgment on the part of the actors and the audience that this is a play that we’re watching,” the director added. “It unlocks this world of imaginative collaboration between the audience and the actors.”

Using an all-male cast also heightens the audience’s sensibilities toward gender bias. Although our society may think female suffering is sometimes unavoidable, watching a man, in a woman’s costume, suffer Juliet’s fate brings the injustice closer to the surface and makes it therefore more questionable. In the same way, a man pinching a woman’s backside might not be a “big deal” under common circumstances, but when Capulet pinches the backside of a man, wearing a dress and assuming the role of a maiden servant, this seemingly benign act becomes immediately offensive.

This ingenuity in casting suffers, however, by some of the production’s technical aspects. Scott Bradley’s mammoth set — which uses the Sidney Harman Hall’s thrust stage configuration for the first time — is stunningly gorgeous, but its usability doesn’t live up to its visuals. Much of the play revolves around the lovers’ intimate conversations, and because the words become even more important in this all-male production, it is absolutely necessary to hear them all. Unfortunately, Juliet’s dialogue, especially when she is perched on her high balcony, is lost in the expanse. Even Capulet’s emotional scene when he denounces Juliet for not following his orders to marry Paris would benefit from a more intimate space.

Another weak link is Romeo’s reaction to Juliet’s death. Although Finn Wittrock portrays Romeo with sufficient pathos during the courtship and fight scenes, he is curiously detached after finding out his love appears to be dead. Earlier in the script he is concerned with appearing too feminine — when he refuses to fight Tybalt, he claims, “Juliet’s beauty hath made me effeminate.” But his bravado seems out of place during the play’s denouement.

Save for these few-and-far-between problems, this production succeeds in the difficult task of making one of Shakespeare’s most known and loved plays new again — ironically by reverting to the old way it used to be staged.

Romeo and Juliet through Oct. 12 Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall 610 F St., NW Tickets are .50 to .75 For more information, please call (202) 547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

About the Author

Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999