Reviewed by Annie Zeleznikow
In this modern retelling of a classic story where men are nowhere in sight. There is a museum of sorts that explains why men disappeared. But the focus of this play is on the women, so that’s what I’ll do too. The set of R+J can be described as industrial and hazardous (designed by Marisa Kaugars). Large sheets of metal are the backdrop of the scene and surround the entire performance area. The aggressive set was an accurate location for this retelling, filled with anger and passion, it is hard to imagine this version of R+J in a set any less dynamic. The warlike set is reflected in the conflict ready direction of the play.
R (Charlie Aleman) is charismatic. The show revolves around R, and they provide a strong emotional foundation for a show that at sometimes is frantic. Benvolio (Chelsea Fryer) and Mercutio (Ania Upstill) banter with R with ease, an emotional bond is clear, as the actors move forward with the plot. Perhaps I am placing my ideas of femineity on the actors and seeing traditionally male characters as more emotional because they are being portrayed by female presenting individuals. Each thought and conclusion I made during the show has me second guessing my biases.
R+J’s costume design (designed by Lux Haac) deepens the dark nature of the play, and the set forces the audience to imagine a different world. The inherit masculinity in the black and camouflage costumes contrasts the femininity exhibited from the actors. Even traditionally female characters, such as J (Briana Sakamoto) are shrouded in black. Although her mesh shirt exuded female energy. On the other hand, the low cost but high intellect of the set creates an entirely masculine world. The Reflective properties of the metal sheets double the cast and the audience- eerily reflecting our confused and shocked expressions back onto ourselves.
My preconceived ideas lessen lust in a gay relationship, I was shocked when I found myself surprised that two female presenting individuals could be as lustful as R and J. My idea of the traditional play, my understanding of lust and sexual desire, had been dictated by societal norms. The kissing scenes and sex scenes in this production felt so strange to me because I hadn’t thought that queer love could descend into the same single-minded lust and passion that I have come to expect in a straight couple. I think subconsciously I had made assumptions, most that non-heteronormative relationships were lustless, or less lustful. I was tested by R + J and found wanting.
Shakespeares’ sex jokes feel weird, female-presenting individuals are talking about how hard their dicks are, and how they want to sleep with different women. The jokes become poignant. A reminder of how ridiculous and segregated our genders are. It seemed bizarre for a woman to make a joke, but it was just funny (to me) in other Romeo and Juliet productions. I think this is one of the many reasons this production is so revolutionary and relevant, it highlights internal sexism and forces me to confront my prejudices. These differences are mirrored in my response to the violence in the show. It feels overly violent, and I wondered while watching, would I have felt that way if it were two male presenting individuals fighting to the death?
It feels strange for J to wait for R to take action. In this retelling, there is no fairer sex, but J still waits. In previous shows I have seen it felt natural, Romeo will go organize the wedding while Juliet waits. But when there are two female presenting individuals, why should one wait for the other to take action? They are equal. I am mortified at myself, and my complacency. The power imbalance between Romeo and Juliet in classic telling’s of the show are increasingly obvious as I watch the classic story unfurl.
At the top of Act II the show began to drag a little. This does happen (in my opinion) in almost all Shakespeare plays, so it wasn’t too outside the ordinary. What was strange and unique to this production was the confusion caused by actors playing multiple roles, sometimes in the same scene. That was truly one of the most confusing aspects of the show.
R crying seems too feminine for the character as portrayed by a female presenting actor, and again this show puts my own notions of gender to shame, as I am faced with my deeply innate response to men crying, which is to perceive them as weak. R is described as “a child and a beast” and this stood out to me. During R + J, I was faced with a lot of confrontational ideas and this line stood out to me as powerful as it was a strong and reasonable way to define a man, but not a woman.
When J is found ‘dead’, there is a single light that follows her. J is found by R, and the long soliloquy begins. I never thought about how truly toxic R’s masculinity is until a gender non-conforming individual portrayed him and he was so clearly made to look ridiculous through his bravado and self-imposed masculinity. R takes the poison and violently throws up. My response to this was that it was accurate yet entirely melodramatic. J’s demise is powerful, touching and modern. The drama feels accurate to the text, and to Shakespeare, but with a female presenting individual in the role, it felt over the top.
I have seen countless retellings of this story, but never before have I been so surprised by my response to this well-known and well-loved story. I was moved, angered, and made to question myself throughout the show. Although confronting this show is worth seeing. It might not be what you want to hear, nobody likes discovering dark and ugly things about themselves. But I feel this show justly deserves a receptive audience.