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The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0575  Thursday, 2 October 2008

From:       Hardy M. Cook <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:       Thursday, October 02, 2008
Subject:    All-Male Romeo and Juliet at the Shakespeare Theatre

[Editor's Note: A few weekends ago, I saw the all-male production _Romeo and 
Juliet_ that opened this year's season at the Shakespeare Theatre. Allow me a 
few belated observations regarding it.

Members of the Shakespeare Theatre audiences pay enormous amounts for tickets 
and want to feel they are getting their money's worth: they demand lavish 
productions with large casts of actors, all wearing sumptuous costumes, parading 
around on elaborate sets, and they do not want to see anything that is any more 
controversial than an occasional jostling remark aimed at "K" Street lawyers or 
lobbyists, or at members of Congress or occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue 
(provided they are Republicans and warmongers) -- Supreme Court justices or 
anyone who contributes substantially to the company are generally safe from such 

As you might imagine, the Shakespeare Theatre is not where one goes to see 
challenging or, for that matter, controversial productions. It is not, for 
example, a place to see a queered, all-male _Romeo and Juliet_: DC has other 
venues for _Romeo Meets Jim at Rehoboth Beach_. The Shakespeare Theatre 
occasionally has a gay Antonio (any Antonio will do) or a wink-wink, nudge-nudge 
Andrew Auguecheek, but what should one expect when coming there for an all-male, 
Romeo and Juliet?

My remarks are from someone who has subscribed to The Shakespeare Theatre 
Company for thirty years, beginning around 1978 when it was the Folger Theatre 
Group (during Louis Scheeder's tenure as artistic director), through its years 
as the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger (with John Neville-Andrews as artistic 
director), through The Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger years (when Michael 
Kahn took control), through years of the Shakespeare Theatre's move from the 
Folger and the opening of the Lansburgh Theatre in 1992, to its present 
incarnation as The Shakespeare Theatre at the Sidney Harmon Center.

Let me begin then by confessing that I do not like the new Sidney Harmon Center 
Theatre -- I am being polite, I HATE it. This new theater space is huge, too 
huge. The Harmon Center preserves the fine sightline playgoers have come to 
expect from the Lansburgh Theatre, but anyone who is not in the first six rows 
needs to bring binoculars to see an actor's facial expression, and tissues and 
dramamine for seats in the so-called mezzanine, the upper level not an 
intermediate one as its name implies. The cavernous depths of this space has 
since its premiere last year been arranged for staging principally plays set in 
Rome, with sets that have more columns and pedestals than can be found at the 
neighboring U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Lincoln Memorial, and the 
Jefferson Memorial put together, as Jean Hagen might say. So far the sets I have 
seen at the Harmon Center alone ought to satisfy this crowd's urge to see their 
ticket money before them. On these sets, actors could perform au naturel, but 
then that would be too controversial would not it?

The Lansburgh with 451 seats was built to provide more seats than the 240 at the 
tiny Elizabethan stage at the Folger Library. Seating capacity at the Harmon is 

When Michael Kahn came to DC to head the then Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger 
so named, he surely had plans to build a new space. As I was researching 
background information -- I am supposed to be grading papers -- I discovered a 
quotation from either director Louis Scheeder or his successor John 
Neville-Andrews that productions cost twice what ticket sales bring in from 
theater at the Folger. Ironically, this line is used today by Shakespeare 
Theatre solicitors when they call asking for contributions. Excuse me, I got off 

My point was that the Lansburgh was built to provide more seats than the 
Elizabethan Theatre at the Folger Library, and the same justification must have 
been used to justify building the Harmon Center. To my tastes, something was 
lost with the move upward from the 451-seat relatively intimate space of the 
Lansburgh to the 775-seat Harmon Center.

Now, back to the all-male _Romeo and Juliet_ -- Was it Museum Theater? Well . . 
. perhaps Museum Theater Shakespeare Theatre style.

At first, I had high hopes when I saw that first four rows had been relocated to 
the sides to create a thrust-style stage. The actors were permitted to be as 
explicit as they wished to go for laughs. I don't think I have ever seen a 
Mercutio holding a triangularly shaped bunch of grapes to his crouch to 
represent Rosaline's demesnes. Nevertheless, the production downplayed the 
erotic (I mean, this production when way out of its way to downplay the erotic.) 
Instead, the impetuosity of the lovers was emphasized. My favorite bit of the 
production was the scene between Romeo and Friar Lawrence (Shakespeare Theatre's 
veteran Ted van Griethuysen), whose chiding of Romeo's youthful self-indulgence 
was as good as it gets.

Now, if I were the director and I had someone as talented as James Davis playing 
Juliet, I would have used, for example, "Gallop apace" to explore rather than 
avoid the sexual . . .

But that would have been another production, on another stage, with a different 
company, alas. -HMCook

PS: I found the choice to have Romeo drown Tybalt, holding him underwater for an 
agonizingly long time in an onstage barrel, effective -- a choice that I could 
not help associating with water-boarding, a topic difficult to escape from in 
this town.]

In All-Male 'Romeo & Juliet,' A Coy Affair
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 17, 2008; Page C01


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.

[ . . . ]

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 

S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>

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expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the editor assumes no 
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