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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Theatre Review: R + J Equal Love

I am always excited and hopeful when I hear of a theatre company doing something new with one of Shakespeare’s plays. Inner Circle Theatre’s production, R + J Equal Love – the company’s first full-length production – is a new take on The Tragedy Of Romeo And Juliet. This production is unusual in many ways. Even its location – in the back of a fashion store in downtown L.A. – is something of a surprise.

The space itself is set up as theatre in the round, with the stage as two long platforms in the form of a cross, with a small, slightly higher platform in the center. At the end of each of the four arms is a station for one of the four characters, where he or she can retreat. That’s right – in this production, only four characters are actually physically present – Romeo, Juliet, the Nurse and Friar Lawrence. Because of that, the focus is really on the relationship between Romeo and Juliet.

What is also interesting is that the production is broken into two acts, but each act has the complete arc of their story. The first time through it is played by women in both lead roles, and the second time through by men. Their names remain the same, but in the first act, Romeo is a female character – it’s not a woman playing a man’s role – and in the second act Juliet is a male character. So it presents the play as two homosexual relationships, and yet the feud between their families is still what is at the root of the troubles. The only indication that anyone might be against the relationship because of its same-sex quality is the fact that Paris’ gender is always opposite Juliet’s – in the first act, Paris is male, and in the second act, Paris is female. And so Juliet’s parents have arranged a heterosexual marriage.


The production is modern dress, and with some multimedia content. For example, it opens with a news report flashed on two of the white walls, which contains part of the opening chorus’ speech as well as news footage of the first scene (including the biting of the thumbs). So while only four actors are present in each act, other characters are portrayed using recorded voices and images projected on the walls. What this does is really make us focus and identify with Romeo and Juliet. For example, Mercutio isn’t given the chance to steal the show, as that character is a voice that we hear. But Romeo still interacts with Mercutio. (By the way, in the first act, Mercutio is female.)

With each act just under an hour, obviously a lot is cut. After the news report, the play begins with Act I Scene iii, with the sound of a phone ringing and Juliet’s “How now, who calls?” Lady Capulet is presented as a recorded voice and photo projected on the wall, a sort of Caller ID. Then, after a brief bit of Romeo’s conversation with Mercutio from Act I Scene iv, we go right to the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet, approaching each other from opposite sides of the cross. In both acts, this first meeting has a wonderful, palpable joy.

From their meeting, we go straight to the balcony scene. By the way, the blocking isn’t always the same in both acts. In the first act, Romeo crawls along the platform toward Juliet, then retreats, which is actually quite funny. And of course, the line readings are different. The female Juliet is playful, quite like a child, until “What satisfaction canst thou have tonight,” which she delivers in kind of a sexual way. The male Juliet delivers it in a flirtatious manner, but not as overtly sexual as the female Juliet. I love the male Romeo’s delivery of “What shall I swear by?” He delivers it as a simple question, which is surprisingly rare. Another thing that I love about this scene is that the director has chosen to follow Q2 in assigning Romeo the “Parting is such sweet sorrow” line, which is almost always given to Juliet. (Sadly, the “A rose by any other word” line is cut.)

Because of the changing genders, some lines do change. When the Nurse tells Juliet of Romeo’s identity in the first act, she says, “Her name is Romeo, and a Montague.” And sometimes there is an interesting mix, which changes the meaning slightly. For example, in the first act when the Nurse is telling Juliet of her encounter with the female Romeo, she says, “Though her face be better than any man’s.” So “his” is changed to “her” but “man’s” remains “man’s.” Thus the line becomes an acknowledgement of the homosexual nature of the relationship. Also interesting (and getting a laugh from the audience) is that the Nurse is clearly attracted to Romeo (particularly when describing Romeo’s legs). One loss we get in the changing of certain words is the great rhyme when Nurse says “Will you speak well of him that kill’d your cousin” and Juliet replies “Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?” In the first act, “husband” is necessarily changed to “wife,” and so the line doesn’t really work with the same power, though the female Juliet still delivers it with exactly the right energy.

I do wonder if people without any prior exposure to the play will be able to follow everything because of some of the cuts. For example, when Juliet is anxious for the Nurse’s return, this production has cut the previous scene where the Nurse and Romeo talk. And, more importantly, the Apothecary scene is cut, as is the scene where Romeo receives word of Juliet’s death from Balthasar. So what makes Romeo return? Because he’s heard no news, it seems that Romeo returns simply out of impatience. And where did he get the poison, and why, since he hasn’t heard of her death? The scene is more awkward in the male version, because Romeo begins to sob even before approaching Juliet, so for some reason he assumes just at the sight of her that she is dead and not simply sleeping (the scene takes place in Juliet’s chamber not the tomb).

It is interesting how the different actors have different moments in which they shine. For example, I absolutely love the female Romeo in the scene where she asks the Friar’s consent to marry them. And the male Romeo is excellent in the scene where he says, "Heaven is here, where Juliet lives." The female Juliet’s delivery of “Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end” is wonderful, particularly because of her pause before “I see.” And the male Juliet shines in that scene, but in the moment just prior to that. The male Juliet takes a longer moment to rouse after Romeo’s death, and is happy at first at seeing Romeo, and so his delivery of “What’s here, a cup clos’d in my true love’s hand” is rather playful, which is a nice variation.

The cross design provides opportunities for some really wonderfully and meaningfully staged moments. One example that stands out for me is when Romeo is talking to Tybalt (who is not physically present, of course), he (or she, in the first act) is at one end of the platform looking toward Juliet as he/she says, “good Capulet, which name I tender as dearly as mine own.” Juliet is present and at the receiving end of that line, though Romeo sees Tybalt. It also works to show how Juliet will be affected by Tybalt’s death even before Romeo and he fight.

One other thing that is remarkable is that the multimedia aspect of the production never gets in the way of the story, and somehow this production keeps all of that stuff from feeling silly. The play is essentially done without props. There are props at each of the four stations (and there's a wonderful moment when the Nurse interacts with audience members when returning from her meeting with Romeo), but when on the platform the actors perform without props. Thus objects like the vial and the dagger are imagined.

Because the space is essentially a warehouse, there are at times some issues with sound. And the stage smoke was a bit heavy in the first act, slightly obscuring the actors’ expressions when they were at the corner farthest from you, as well as the photos projected on the wall. But that was fixed for the second act.

R + J Equal Love stars Teena Pugliese as Romeo, Liz Fenning as Juliet, Carmine DiBenedetto as Romeo, Justin Alastair as Juliet, Elena Campbell-Martinez as Nurse, and Wesley Mann as Friar Lawrence. It is directed by Casey Kringlen. There is one fifteen-minute intermission. The production runs only through February 22nd, so with so few performances, it might be best to get your tickets now. The production is at The Well, which is located at 1006 S. Olive St. in Los Angeles.

(Note: I also posted this review on Mostly Shakespeare.)

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