Theater

In All-Male 'Romeo & Juliet,' A Coy Affair

Finn Wittrock as Romeo and James Davis as Juliet in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's all-male staging.
Finn Wittrock as Romeo and James Davis as Juliet in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's all-male staging. (By Scott Suchman -- Shakespeare Theatre Company)

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet -- but how about a Juliet when played by a James?

Shakespeare Theatre Company's bet for its new incarnation of "Romeo and Juliet" is that two of the dewiest tragic lovers in all of Western drama can go at it, man to man. Adopting a hiring strategy that's been popularized of late by London classical troupes -- and, of course, stretches back to Shakespeare's own time -- the troupe casts men in roles up and down the line, from the serving girls to the Ladies Capulet and Montague.

It's a refreshing letting-loose for a company that isn't known for fussing too heavily with convention; director David Muse's mostly astute staging is in fact the first all-male Shakespeare in its history. (The closest analogue might be the company's 1997 racially reversed "Othello," in which Patrick Stewart portrayed the Moor and black actors played Iago and Desdemona.)

So naturally you still want to know: Does a muskier version of "Romeo and Juliet" smell as sweet? Er, sorta kinda. Muse plays confidently with tradition: While dressing characters in gender-appropriate Renaissance finery, he inventively also sets melancholy choral numbers -- courtesy of a group called the Broken Chord Collective -- to some of Romeo's lines. He elicits becoming portrayals, too, from the epicene Mercutio of Aubrey Deeker to the vigilant Nurse of Drew Eshelman to the machismo of Cody Nickell's Tybalt.

Yes, yes, but what about the boys? All right, here's the rub: The fresh-faced actors playing Romeo (Finn Wittrock) and Juliet (James Davis) convincingly convey the caution-to-the-wind impetuosity of young love. But not the raging fires. Romeo and Juliet meet sporadically in this violent tragedy; for the awful consequences to make sense, the adolescent passion in their fleeting encounters must be downright flammable.

The romance with which Wittrock and Davis imbue the story is of a demure variety -- their kisses are little more than pecks -- that never allows you to go along fully with the idea they'd jump into the grave for each other. Davis's Juliet, all billowing locks and gowns, pliably radiates femininity, and still there's the sense that the production is dancing around the subject of sex. (Let's be real: No post-Zeffirelli version feels complete without it.)

This is not a big problem in the early part of the play, when the fast-forwarding courtship sparks our amusement. As the skies over fair Verona darken, however, the intensity of their rapture becomes that much more vital for us to feel. Yet in this outing, that ardor carries little emotional force.

The crucial fate-sealing plot twist, in which the exiled Romeo is told that the dead Juliet "sleeps in Capel's monument," seems weightless. Although the text tells us that Romeo's looks at this moment are "pale and wild," Wittrock's affect is neutral and collected. The mistiming of Juliet's reawakening in the tomb as a result strikes one as a minor cause for regret, not a major source of heartbreak.

Perhaps love's embers will be more powerfully stoked in the weeks of the run to come. (In Wittrock and Davis's defense, their task is more complicated than that of such transparently gay interpretations of the play as Joe Calarco's successful all-male adaptation, "Shakespeare's R & J," set in a repressive boys' school, where "Romeo and Juliet" becomes a vehicle for the students to act out their pent-up urges.)

Certainly, as an expansion of company boundaries and an insightful riff on a text practically known by heart, this "Romeo and Juliet" is still worth a visit to Sidney Harman Hall, the company's larger and more dramatic space, on F Street NW. The flexible Harman stage is for the first time in its thrust configuration, meaning that it shoots into the auditorium, with four rows of seats along the sides. Framed by the archways of a dark grotto, Scott Bradley's minimally ornamented set suggests a Verona of commerce, with large wine casks stacked in corners. (For the balcony scene, Romeo darts among the grapevines of the Capulets' vineyard.)

Jennifer Moeller's appealingly supple costumes put the men playing male roles in boots and leather pants, and those in female roles in flowing dresses with constricting bodices. The goal seems to be to cloak the all-male artifice in as much credibility as possible.

The actors play along admirably. Tom Beckett's Lady Capulet and Jeffrey Kuhn's Lady Montague conform to the characters' measured dictates; Eshelman, meanwhile, confers an air of composure and caring on an earthy character played far more often for laughs.

One of the intriguing effects of these reserved portraits is to underline the floridly impulsive behavior of the male characters of the play, who let their emotions rule -- whose hatreds run so deep that they're ready to stab a member of the enemy clan at the slightest provocation.

Dan Kremer's Capulet is a case in point. He evokes a paterfamilias of hair-trigger reactions, one who wears his heart on both sleeves. It's a performance at an interesting counterpoint to that of the superb Ted van Griethuysen, whose savvy Friar Lawrence comes across as a salutary influence even when imparting his most misguided of schemes.

Although you'd love to see every aspect of "Romeo and Juliet" so vividly illuminated, Muse's gender-restricted gambit is an estimable reminder of how many routes can be traveled with Shakespeare -- and how many more this company needs to explore. In a wicked-cool bit of counterprogramming, the tiny Washington troupe Taffety Punk is offering this month an answer to Muse's production: an all-female "Romeo and Juliet." It's just this kind of clever blowback that rounds out a real theater town.

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare. Directed by David Muse. Lighting, Lap Chi Chu; original music and sound, the Broken Chord Collective; voice and text, Ellen O'Brien; fight direction, Robin McFarquhar; choreographer, Daniel Pelzig. With Matthew Carlson, Scott Hamilton Westerman, Nathan Bennett, Lawrence Redmond, Hubert Point-Du Jour, Craig Wallace, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Daniel Eichner, Christopher Ryan Grant. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Oct. 12 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit http://www.shakespearetheatre.org.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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