It’s well-known that the Capulets and the Montagues go at it like cats and dogs. One rarely gets to see this literalised, however. But what better way to get across the extent of their feud to a group of children than to have them literally be cats and dogs? The Manipulators, excellent puppeteers Trish Leeper and Allan Martin, seize on this idea with gusto and play it to the hilt. It is perhaps too obvious that the names will be somewhat altered; but if the Catulets were easy to predict, I have to admit I didn’t see the Muttagaues coming.
The names are scarcely the only things to change; in fact, this is not exactly a performance of Romeo and Juliet -- hence why it's actually called Rovero and Juliet. It does however contain the bare bones of the story, and is an excellent way to introduce children to Shakespeare. Much as I may rebel at the sight of an actor with a questionably rural English accent announce himself to be 9-year-old ‘Billy’ Shakespeare, the explanation for the changed story – that this is the original, as written by Shakespeare at the age of nine with a happy ending and later revised as a tragedy for London audiences – sets up what’s coming well. Besides, this pre-prologue (coming as it does before the official prologue) introduces us to Billy’s mother, who is a wonderful piece of work.
The plot we get is as follows: Rovero is endlessly pursuing Rosaline, who dumps him. To console him, his mother gives him his father’s sword. Rovero’s nerdish friend Benvolio convinces him to go to the Catulet’s party, but Rovero ends up in a fight with the jock Paris (a lion in a sports tank top). Juliet, a lovely grey cat with blue eyes and a crush on Justin Beaver (how could they resist), is told by her Nurse (a cow) that her father is planning to marry her off. She and Rovero meet, and the balcony scene ensues. Rovero suddenly finds himself engaged to be married, a bit uncertain as to how that happened. However, he has to leave town because he’s wanted by the police for that fight with Paris. Married by Friar Lawrence (a dromedary), he leaves town. The Nurse comes up with the sleeping potion idea. Here’s where things get a little nuts and the stage starts to fill up like the end of Hamlet: Rovero returns, sees the catatonic (!) Juliet, and despairingly drinks the potion too. Then Lady Muttague and Lord Catulet arrive, and in despair drink the potion as well. Paris and Rosaline come in; Paris at first grieves but quickly starts flirting with Rosaline, and they down some of the potion too. The Friar and the Nurse enter, recognise each other as their long-lost love, realise they’re likely to be blamed for everything, and elope; then everyone wakes up and are reconciled, it being revealed that the parents had a bit of a fling back in the day, which was at the root of their feud. Rosaline and Paris are carted off, still asleep, Benvolio is seduced by the police officer, and the stone dog and cat heads decorating the towers of the set give us an epilogue.
Put more briefly: it hasn’t got much to do with Shakespeare’s play, but the kids will love it, as well they might. And it’s exceptionally well-done. It’s a classic puppet show with the puppets acting over a curtain, and it is at times hard to believe that there are only two puppeteers manipulating and voicing all the characters. The script is hilarious, full of lovely details – the fact that Rovero’s dad was run over by an SPCA van, for instance – and well-thought-out jokes on animal nature. Rovero in particular is both convincingly dog-like (and at times hangdog) and convincingly young. Repeating for Juliet the charmer’s lines he unsuccessfully tried on Rosaline, he is clearly out of his depth, never quite sure how he got himself engaged to Juliet. Meanwhile, ultra-romantic Juliet swoons and plots, as well as going on an all-too-convincing catnip bender when Rovero brings her a chewtoy stuffed with it. (What sort of example is that for the children!?)
Along with their superlative puppeteering skills (the sheer dogginess of Allan Martin’s Rovero has to be seen to be believed), the two performers put on a marvelous range of voices that match their characters perfectly, from the high-strung Pekingese Rosaline to the lecherous cocker spaniel Officer Bianca, the smarmy upper-class twit Paris and the deeply nerdy Benvolio, whose excuse for neither getting into fights nor talking to girls is that he’s lost his contact lens, despite wearing glasses. Also of note is the inventive set, with two towers on either side of the curtain, bearing a dog’s head and a cat’s head respectively, which speak the prologue and epilogue, behind which are revolving walls allowing for rapid scene changes (though on occasion they turned in the wrong direction before being corrected, much to the audience’s delight). I doubt many people in the audience didn’t want to bring the majestic portrait of Lord Catulet home with them, and the Muttagues’ larder – containing nothing but row upon row of tins marked ‘DOG FOOD’ is delightful – as is the sight of Rovero being fed a bowl of said dog food at the table.
The production can’t help but bring to mind Susan Herbert’s Shakespeare Cats, another of the great ways to introduce children to Shakespeare. The writing, as mentioned, is both inventive, perfect for the age level, and hilarious. I’m not sure why discovering that Lady Muttague and Lord Catulet’s names are Veronica and Hamish is so hilarious, but it is. The Nurse giving Juliet a tongue bath (‘Do you think I like it any more than you?’), the swords with bananas impaled on the end, everybody’s inability to think that Paris is anything but a girl’s name, the Friar pointedly asking how old the young ’uns are… One could list much of the script. It’s much simpler to just encourage you to grab a ticket. Particularly as it’s educational as well: I cannot applaud the Manipulators enough for having Juliet forcefully explain to Rovero that ‘Wherefore’ means ‘Why’, not ‘Where’.