Backstage

No, It's Not Juliet & Juliet

Rahaleh Nassri as Romeo and Kelsey Grouge as Juliet in Taffety Punk's production, opening Monday.
Rahaleh Nassri as Romeo and Kelsey Grouge as Juliet in Taffety Punk's production, opening Monday. (By Teresa Castracane -- Taffety Punk Theatre Company)
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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 10, 2008

No sooner had the Shakespeare Theatre Company -- the big kahuna of classical theater in town -- begun auditioning for an all-male "Romeo and Juliet" than Lise Bruneau and Marcus Kyd of Taffety Punk Theatre Company determined to counter the production with an all-female one.

"My feminist bones started to rattle," says Bruneau, aggrieved that "over and over and over and over again" a professional company will go the all-guy-Shakespeare route. "As a female classical actress who is fighting for the two roles we get per season anyway, it's incredibly frustrating," she says.

The dueling productions will run Sept. 15-Oct. 4 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (Taffety) and Sept. 9-Oct. 12 (Shakespeare).

And dueling, there will be in both. It seems women who train as classical actors all learn fighting and fencing, but rarely get to use them. "A lot of times, while the girls are sitting around in pretty dresses, the boys are doing rough-and-tumble," says Bruneau. It can be "nerve-racking," she adds, to "watch boys having so much fun."

The set for the show she is directing includes "a jungle gym kind of thing," she says. "When I told our cast that was what they were going to be messing around with, everybody's eyes just lit up."

Bruneau says she's making big cuts in the script because of closing-time constraints, but intends to keep the bawdier sexual banter among male characters that often gets cut to give the love story more stage time. The play, she's finding, is a balancing act, and sometimes a tug of war, between "the guy universe and the love universe. . . . They're really combating each other in this play."

She was surprised at the depth an all-female cast brings to certain lines, as when Romeo beats himself up for trying not to fight Tybalt: "O sweet Juliet, thy beauty hath made me effeminate." Also, Bruneau notes, "it's one thing for a guy to be patting his crotch, but when a woman does it, the sort of jarring aspect of it, it's a little more noticeable. It plays wonderful games with our understanding and perception."

The 'Self-Invention' Of Tennessee Williams

In reading the letters of Tennessee Williams aloud for the stage, actor Richard Thomas says he's sketching "a story of self-invention" about a man who simply had to live his life at "a full-tilt boogie."

Thomas returns to the Kennedy Center to perform "Blanche and Beyond" (Sept. 24-26) as part of its season-opening Prelude festival. The show is a sequel to "A Distant Country Called Youth," which he performed in 2004 as part of the center's Tennessee Williams Explored celebration.

Each theater pieces was culled by adaptor-director Steve Lawson from one of two volumes of Williams's letters edited by Albert J. Devlin and Nancy M. Tischler. In "A Distant Country," the young Thomas Lanier Williams is struggling to break into the rarefied realms of poetry and theater. It ends with the success in 1945 of "The Glass Menagerie" and intimations of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"Blanche and Beyond" picks it up there and follows Williams to 1957 and his writing and debuts of "Streetcar," "Summer and Smoke," "The Rose Tattoo," "Camino Real" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." We learn what he thought of actors Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy and Anna Magnani, and we learn about his great trust for director Elia Kazan. It's an old-time showbiz-name-dropper's paradise. Williams is also in anguish over his mentally ill sister Rose, disapproving mother, alcoholic father and beloved but aging grandfather. He writes of his own growing reliance on drink and drugs.

"So many of the things that, in the first part, are cues for laughter and fun and a sense of freedom and individuation and that kind of outrageousness and adventure of life, begin to turn -- sort of go toxic," Thomas says. "So that while he's in the midst of some of his most fantastic work, creatively, he's beginning to slip as a person."


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