He Sayeth; He Sayeth: Shakespeare Theatre's 'Romeo and Juliet'



WHAT’S IN A GENDER?

Does that which we call Shakespeare‘s “Romeo and Juliet” seem as sweet when it’s done Elizabeth style, aka with an all-male cast?

Though that isn’t the only reason to go see David Muse‘s spin on the young love gone wrong, it amounts to a compelling one. “With ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ we’ve all seen 100 productions and have this idea about what it should be,” says James Davis, who plays Juliet.

Any slob who sat through high school English knows ladies were prohibited from acting on the English stage until the 1660s. In years since, though, it’s been more common to see the fairer sex take on that moody, headstrong bag of teenage angst, Juliet, Davis here imbues the part with freshness and a lack of feyness.

His Jules, all head ducks, slouchy posture and girlish grins, centers an ebullient, colorful production that reminds the audience that these are two very young, very naïve lovers.

But first, Davis has got to break through some preconceptions.

“When you go see ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and you see two men up there, you can definitely feel the audience trying to form an opinion,” says Davis. “It’s kind of quiet in the first act; you can hear them thinking. But Finn [Wittrock, who plays Romeo] and I talked about how the balcony scene is the test. If we pull that off, we’ve got them.”

Indeed, the gender line seems blurred in this production, which helps sell doomed lovers with an excess of testosterone. While Muse is definitely playing it straight here (Lady Capulet is no campy drag queen), he’s definitely mining the first act for comedy. Dan Kremer turns Juliet’s father, Capulet, into a magnanimous party guy — making the tragedy to come all the more poignant. And Juliet’s Nurse (Drew Eshelman) gently portrays a dirty old woman.

Indeed, Davis thinks the all-dude cast made it easier to dance between the play’s light and dark elements.

“It was a very humorous group, kind of like a locker room,” he says. “We bypassed that awkward getting-to-know-you phase.”

As this “Rome and Juliet” proceeds toward its teen angel end, the show becomes more about the language. And those beautiful speeches, which crystallize what it’s like to be young and in lust, seem a little clearer and crisper when we’re concentrating more on the words and less on some satin-sheet wedding night scene.

“The audience in Shakespeare’s day was there for the violence,” says Davis. “So Shakespeare put the passion in the language.”

» Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F. St. NW; through Oct. 18, $23.50-$79.75; 202-547-1122. (Gallery Place-Chinatown)

Photo by Scott Suchman

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express · October 1, 2008