Many issues about producing Shakespeare divide people into two camps, and one of the thorniest is faithfulness to the Bard’s intent: One side believes in following historical and stage tradition, the other asserts that interpretive innovation helps make difficult plays accessible and familiar scripts fresh.
I’m resolutely in the latter category, so I welcome Curio Theatre’s “lesbian” Romeo and Juliet, in which a woman (Rachel Gluck) plays Romeo not as a pants role, but as an actual female character, the daughter of the Montagues. Director Krista Apple-Hodge’s production proves very enjoyable and engrossing because of its leads’ youthful exuberance and the cast’s clear, committed delivery.
Isa St. Clair’s Juliet is an impetuous teen brimming over with new love, appropriately impulsive and silly. Her first moment alone with Romeo — a silent, unscripted scene in which Juliet looks for her party mask and Romeo teases her with it — is magical. Eric Scotolati’s Mer-cutio lives up to his name with an energetic, witty performance, mastering the difficult “Queen Mab” speech. Casting Gluck meant missing what would probably have been Scotolati’s fine Romeo, but we’re well-compensated by her nuanced performance, which embodies the problems of being “one of the guys” while also decidedly different.
The nine-person cast has automatic limitations. Colleen Hughes makes a sprightly Nurse, but falters as Romeo’s nemesis Tybalt, who isn’t as ruthless or lethally skilled as described by Romeo’s pals. It’s an awkward choice that forces quick changes of clothes and character, and leads to Hughes looking overmatched in combat with Mercutio, despite Brian McCann’s explosive fight choreography. Steve Carpenter, Josh Hitchens, Ken Opdenaker and Harry Slack fare better with one significant role each, and Aetna Gallagher (who also serves as costume designer) plays an amalgam of Juliet’s mother and father as a cooly officious matriarch.
Gallagher’s modern-dress costumes come across as rather bland; gray hoodies and jeans just aren’t all that colorful or fun. Paul Kuhn’s multilevel set provides lots of well-used space, skillfully lit by Tim Martin. It doesn’t look like anything in particular — mixing the building’s imposing organ pipes with scaffolding, some stone walls, big wooden church doors and a central circular platform — but it’s dynamic. As usual at Curio, everyone sits close to the action.
The production will disappoint those expecting an overt political statement from Curio, whether they’re looking to cheer or jeer. The small company got a flood of national attention in September when a Philadelphia magazine blog post about the production was picked up by The Drudge Report, resulting in an Internet shitstorm over a lesbian Romeo and Juliet being performed “in a church.” (That the Calvary United Methodist Church’s former sanctuary has been a full-time theater space for years was conveniently brushed aside by fundamentalists whipping themselves into a froth-mouthed frenzy with images of lesbians scissoring on an altar.)
But this Romeo and Juliet plays like one of Mauckingbird Theatre Company’s gender-bent classics, set in a parallel universe in which sexual orientation just isn’t a big deal. The affection between the two leads is staged delicately, and no one — not Juliet herself, Romeo’s guy friends, Juliet’s nurse or their supportive friend Friar Lawrence — seems to notice or care that this tomboy is madly in love with another girl.
It plays well, but I can’t help but wonder how some modern reticence and disapproval would add fresh layers to the drama and enrich the characters and their familiar story — and, yes, maybe even piss off some dirty-minded fundamentalists. Oh, well. Through Nov. 2, $25, Calvary Center, 4740 Baltimore Ave., 215-525-1350, curiotheatre.org.
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