News flash: apparently in 16th century Verona, it gets better.
Theatre Coup d’Etat’s current production of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet, at the Southern Theater, has a twist. Romeo (Cristina Castro) is a young lady just like Juliet (Briana Patnode). The bigger twist is that no one bats an eye. Romeo’s pals are just happy she found a gal she likes. Juliet’s parents are more upset that Romeo comes from the family of their sworn enemies the Montagues. It’s a refreshing choice that the lesbian romance angle isn’t the big deal here. Love is love, and blood feuds are blood feuds.
Apart from changing a few pronouns in the text, we get some unexpected laughs (which must be intentional). When Romeo complains that her love for Juliet has “made her effeminate” or the Friar (Paul Schoenack) berates Romeo saying “your tears are womanish,” the audience can’t help but chuckle. The only radical change to the script is a little hiccup in the Capulet family crypt at the end, but more on that later.
Romeo and Juliet has always been a problematic script for me. While I understand it’s wildly popular, and contains some of the loveliest poetry in any of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s also the perfect example of what film critic Roger Ebert defines as an Idiot Plot: “Any plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all the characters were not idiots.” The number of near misses and plot contrivances that doom our star-crossed lovers are staggering.
Of course, it’s understandable that Romeo and Juliet end up doing one rash thing after another. They’re a pair of hormonal teenagers. At the top of the play, Romeo is pining for someone completely different. Then he she meets Juliet and is instantly in love with her instead. They run off to be married, Romeo gets involved in an unfortunate street fight, people end up dead, and Romeo is forced to leave town. Romeo and Juliet, like any pair of melodramatic teenagers, see every setback as the end of the world, and thus feel compelled on a regular basis to threaten to kill themselves. Some people find this romantic. I find it exhausting.
On the other hand, I understand that this is why so many high schoolers kill themselves. They can’t see anything beyond the universe of high school. The fact that they’ll never have to see any of their tormentors again after they graduate, that the world is wide and possibilities endless, none of this registers. I remember feeling this way when I was younger. You’re at the mercy of your parents, but not forever. You just have to hang on and make it through. Romeo and Juliet are not that patient. Things get messy.
Romeo and Juliet’s personal sense of drama isn’t helped by the fact that their entire families seem hellbent on making as big a deal as possible out of the Capulet/Montague feud. For instance, do not cross Lady Capulet (Brie Roland) if you know what’s good for you. That woman is fierce. Even her husband looks a little afraid of her. Speaking of Lord Capulet (Steven Flamm), when he turns on his daughter, he’s also frightening. He doesn’t do Juliet any physical violence, but the threat is real. Also a force to be reckoned with is Juliet’s Nurse (Meri Golden). When the Nurse orders Romeo to pull herself together and “Stand!”, her voice alone is enough to get that young lover to her feet.
It’s also easy to see why the Prince (Alec Barniskis) is not a person anyone in town wants to mess with. Between the actor’s physical height and powerful voice, he’s mighty intimidating. Oddly enough, Romeo’s pal Mercutio (James Napoleon Stone), usually such a drama queen, is the most cool-headed of the bunch here. Even when Mercutio is badgering Tybalt (Lijesh Krishnan) into a swordfight, he barely raises his voice. Underplaying the role turns out to be a very successful way to play things. Mercutio’s such a stabilizing force in this production that everyone misses him when he’s gone.
As our romantic leads, Castro and Patnode as Romeo and Juliet are a lot of fun to watch. They’re great with each other, and the big love scene at the start of act two is quite playful and sweet. The fact that they had me enjoying Romeo and Juliet is a high compliment, believe me. They, and the whole ensemble, really understand the language of the play down to the molecular level. They make Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English very accessible and easy to follow.
It’s hard to use the phrase “over the top” without it seeming like an insult, but particularly with the ensemble surrounding Romeo and Juliet, melodrama is the order of the day. Every character is extremely invested in things working out just as they’d planned. Tybalt isn’t the only one with a short fuse. Everyone is on their last nerve in this story and it doesn’t take much to set them off. Director Peter Beard has set the stakes very high for everyone, and the actors deliver on that intensity.
The one departure from the standard script is when Romeo and Juliet meet for the last time in the graveyard. Traditionally, the young lovers just miss one another not once, but twice, and then the Friar arrives to intervene before Juliet can do anything rash. He fails, of course, but at least he’s there to try. In Theatre Coup d’Etat’s rendering, the Friar never steps in, and the young lovers actually don’t miss one another. They manage to get one last kiss. The change threw me a little, but I think that’s just because I’ve seen the play several times before. Purists might balk, but since there were all kinds of bastardized versions in the old days when the lovers didn’t die at all and they got a happy ending, this is barely splitting the difference. Newbies to the play probably won’t know the difference.
If you’re a fan looking for a Romeo and Juliet fix, Theatre Coup d’Etat has you covered. If you’ve never seen Romeo and Juliet, this an interesting spin on a familiar story that makes for a fun introduction. And if you just find the idea of two young women in love appealing, this should give you a big old dose of romance.
Read Daily Planet reviews of other local Romeo and Juliets:
• Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet as presented by the Minnesota Opera (2008): review by Rebecca Mitchell
• Romeo and Juliet presented at the Guthrie Theater by the Acting Company (2010): review by Jay Gabler
• The movie Gnomeo and Juliet (2011): review by Katie Sisneros
• Joe Dowling’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet on the Moon, featuring Kate Capshaw as Lady Capulet (2012): review by Matthew A. Everett
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