It’s funny how a male Juliet can seem like a bold innovation when an all-male casting is the most traditional way of mounting Shakespeare. After all, in the Bard’s time, women were not permitted to act, and so all the female roles were performed by boys. The worry today, of course, is that such a casting move can seem gimmicky. Fortunately, the Shakespeare Theatre’s engrossing Romeo and Juliet ably straddles the line between tradition and innovation—and between male and female, if you humbly will. The production takes off with a twist from the very beginning. The actors jointly recite a prologue in their dresses but without their wigs, as if to emphasize that they are men and this is a play and we all must play along if we are going to believe. Then the wigs are donned and the play begins in earnest. And once the initial giggles subside, it becomes apparent that this is no mere drag show.
Romeo and Juliet is, however, deeply interested in gender. The old friar continually scolds Romeo for his feminine traits (“thy tears are womanish”) while Juliet is upbraided for her (male?) independence. The Montagues and Capulets view the world in black and white: you can be male or female, but you’d better not be both. But as the night goes on—and as the men successfully embody women—the casting starts to undercut the text in curious ways.
And yet, at other times, the casting is very much in synch with the characters. When we meet Juliet, she seems caught right on the cusp between ugly duckling and swanhood. She has bee-stung lips, a deep but not unpleasant voice, and far too many hands and feet. The mixture is thoroughly endearing. Juliet is rarely played by a teenager, but having a gangly young dude play her may be the next most authentic choice. Juliet is thirteen—she should be uncomfortable and coltish in her newly sprouted body. James Davis as our lanky Juliet is matched in likeability by Finn Wittrock as Romeo. Boyishly handsome with a glossy mop of hair, Wittrock is natural and sweet as the world’s most famous doomed lover. He captures a certain kind of adolescent—the type of kid who patiently puts up with a scolding because he is thoroughly used to it, and confident that he will be loved despite.
The other standout in the cast is Drew Eshelman as Juliet’s Nurse. Here again, the male casting adds something. The boys of Verona view the Nurse as an asexual old beast, so having a man embody her plays with her already established androgyny. Moreover, Eshelman successfully conveys that this old hag of a Nurse cares deeply for Juliet. Romeo has a surrogate parent, as well, in his friar. The real parents of both teenagers are cold and distant. Feuding for so long has not done their dispositions any favors. As played by Washington D.C. stalwart Ted van Griethuysen, the deliberate and thoughtful old friar quickly captures our sympathy. Aubrey Deeker as the manic Mercutio also exhibits considerable charisma and energy. Really, the whole cast is strong, and strongly committed to both the story and the gender device. I often forgot that I was watching men play women. Even the ensemble players take their roles (as maids, etc) seriously, never straying into caricature or farce.
The production, the first in the Harman Hall to be staged in a thrust configuration, is handsomely mounted. The set (by Scott Bradley) features an Italian courtyard and these cool metal rings that the Montague boys swing on like monkeys. The period costumes (by Jennifer Moeller) are ornate and gorgeous, although I don’t understand why all of the shirts had holes cut out of them at the armpit. David Muse, the director, keeps a sure hand on all the action, seamlessly transitioning us from scene to scene and from mood to mood.
As a whole, this strikes me as a well thought-out production. Muse, for example, has wisely told his Juliet not to bother with a falsetto. He rightly understands that an audience needs to comprehend the language more than we need to hear a “feminine” voice. In a nutshell, that’s probably why this production works as well as it does. Gender, although important, plays second fiddle to the characters themselves.