Playing the 'Juliet' Gender Card

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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008

"Kimberly Gilbert will most likely never be given this part to play again," begins the biography for the forceful young Washington actress in the program for Taffety Punk Theatre's all-female "Romeo and Juliet." She might be right -- Mercutio may never again come Gilbert's way -- but you know what? She takes a funny, fire-breathing stab at him in the company's spare and spunky rendering of the play.

The production, in Capitol Hill Arts Workshop's black-box space, has a merry, let's-put-on-a-show feel about it. (It looks as if its budget were in the neighborhood of $11.39.) And of course, it's meant to be a throwdown, a challenge to the grander, costlier all-male "Romeo and Juliet" on the boards at Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall.

How can you help but feel kindly toward a show that, in this campaign season, plays the gender card with such skill? Taffety Punk, an outfit run by actors Marcus Kyd and Lise Bruneau -- the latter directs the production -- goes after the male-dominated version across town with a Tina Fey kind of cheek. "An hour shorter, a fraction of the cost and 100 percent more women," goes the production's slogan. It's as if the company were trying to tap into a potential target audience of disgruntled Hillary Clinton voters.

Having recruited experienced Shakespeare declaimers for this venture -- such as Michelle Shupe and Tonya Beckman Ross, both of whom have appeared at the Shakespeare Theatre, as well as a few others who sound much newer to the Bard -- this "Romeo and Juliet" is a technically inconsistent evening. (It does practice truth-in-advertising; the play has been pared down to 2 1/4 hours.) Still, Bruneau -- who was Hermione in Michael Kahn's "The Winter's Tale" at Shakespeare several years ago -- knows how to wring feeling from the poetry, so there is a tender fervor to the attraction this Romeo (Rahaleh Nassri) exhibits for his Juliet (Kelsey Rae Grouge).

Just as the men of David Muse's disciplined, intelligent Harman Hall staging do not seek to play theatrically exaggerated ideas of women -- if anything, they're almost gender-neutral -- the actresses of Bruneau's modern-dress treatment effect masculine mannerisms without laying on the swagger. (Abby Wood's Tybalt is the exception; the actress squares her shoulders and juts out her jaw, which makes her character a convincing brother-in-arms to Cody Nickell's Tybalt in the Shakespeare Theatre production.)

The idealistic conceit that both versions seem to embrace is of a world slowly growing in enlightenment -- one that more readily accepts one's own determination of how masculine or feminine, or male or female, to be. This tolerant outlook places both productions, despite their tragic dimensions, in an optimistic framework: They take cues not from the hatred that the play documents, but the hint of reconciliation that comes at the very end, when Lord Capulet extends his hand to his despised rival, the head of the house of Montague.

Perhaps out of some nervousness, Nassri and Grouge tend to rush through the music of their famous speeches. They display far more confidence when playing off each other. The balcony scene, performed on and around the set's sole fixture, rudimentary monkey bars, sweetly illuminates the bloom on Romeo and Juliet's fast-budding love.

Julia Brandeberry's Paris, Erin Sloan's Lady Capulet and Elizabeth Webster's Escalus create especially sturdy portraits. And Gilbert brings a welcome air of bravura to Romeo's hyper-dramatic friend. So who knows? She makes you think it's perhaps not so far-fetched, hearing her speak in Mercutio's voice again, somewhere down the road.

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Lise Bruneau. Set, David C. Ghatan; lighting, Sam Kitchel; costumes, Lynly Saunders; fight choreography, Lorraine Ressegger. With Allyson Harkey, Toni Rae Brotons, Esther Williamson, Sabrina Mandell. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Oct. 4 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St. SE. Call 202-261-6612 or visit http://www.taffetypunk.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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