With a script like Romeo and Juliet, which every middle school student has read, the problem with any production is that the play is overdone. The young lovers’ story is familiar, the monologues are collectively memorized; there can be no shocking twists. A theatre company has to make a truly compelling argument as to why they slipped it into their season. Babes With Blades, who built a following with their focus on female empowerment through fight choreography, claim their treatment opens the play up in new ways. They may pull at the seams thematically, but director Brian LaDuca and his all-female cast fail to make this piece truly their own.
In line with their name, this production promises babes and blades. The re-envisioning of Romeo and Juliet stands on three conceptual legs: only ladies in the cast, loads of slicing and dicing, and transferring the Elizabethan-era text to late 19th century Italy, just before the antics of Mussolini. The two first ideas have the potential to really change how we perceive the play, if the production went balls (figurative) to the wall.
Admittedly, this was my first Babes With Blades show, but with a name that sexy, I was expecting more blades. That’s the most glaring issue with this Romeo and Juliet—the lack of swashbuckling. The fights, designed by Libby Beyreis, are well-executed and complicated, but there are not enough of them. The swords only come out for the handful of times Shakespeare writes them in. In that way, even if the battles are impressive, this is just like any other production. We come expecting babes and blades—LaDuca should give the audience what they want and cram the staging with fighting. That could really make the play interesting; what if the balcony scene involved some playful knifing? He and Beyreis have the opportunity and audience go-ahead to do some unconventional stuff, but they never go for it.
The all-female cast was also mishandled. Ricky Lurie’s costuming is great—all the male characters wear skirts that imply trousers, indicating the character’s gender without masking that of the actor’s. LaDuca has the chance to do some interesting meta-musing on gender politics in the centuries-old story, but he never makes a move. The male characters always stay male, which made me wonder what the point was. You forget you’re even watching an all-women production. The idea seems good on paper—there are enough gender issues to make a women’s studies major’s head spin (for example, if their love was ever discovered, how well would Juliet fare compared to Romeo?). But a director needs to breathe life into a concept for it to actually connect to the audience, and LaDuca just lets this one sit still.
The period does not do much for me either, even though LaDuca makes an impassioned argument for it in the program notes. The Liberal Period, he contends, was an especially high tension moment between the haves and have-nots. Historically, the social trends of this time grew into the fascism that embroiled the world in war. As far as the Capulets and Montagues are concerned, though, the time period reboot only means different costumes. Good intentions, but, again, we don’t get much more than a facade.
So the concept may not stick, but if you are looking for a solid, well-acted tribute to the Bard, this would be worth your time. The script cuts are somewhat blunt and some good stuff is lost in the name of a two-hour running time. But the cast gives some decent performances and navigate the language surprisingly well for a storefront theatre company.
Gillian N. Humiston and Ashley Fox as Romeo and Juliet, respectively, bring a believable youthful vigor to their roles. Amy Harmon as Mercutio and Megan Schemmel as Benvolio are also noteworthy, having a great, if sometimes over the top, feisty energy. The real stand-out of the production, however, is Eleanor Katz as the Nurse, who alternates between mousy and strong, but always keep us with her.
Bill Anderson’s set is two tons of fun. It’s simple and drab, but works beautifully. The whole stage consists of several levels and throughways that work as a playground for the actors. LaDuca stages very well in the space, always keeping our attention by using the different heights.
But Babes With Blades is unable to make this decent production a great one. And, honestly, a decent production of a play so overdone is not needed. The company should have found inspiration in what makes them great—spirited, independent women conducting complex swordplay. They’ve got a great idea, but it needs to nurtured and allowed to mature.