For their ninth season, the Curio Theatre Company’s goal is a focus on women and the exploration of gender roles. When their Romeo and Juliet went into production shortly after the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, director Krista Apple-Hodge made the decision to cast the eponymous lovers as two young women: an attempt to prove the universality of Shakespeare’s tragic love story for people of all romantic and sexual orientations.
The production has a modern setting, a choice that wisely highlights its current relevance. Apple-Hodge and set designer Paul Kuhn were inspired by the contrast between the ancient architecture and the trappings of modern life in present-day Verona. The result is a fantastic set where marble-esque columns support matte black metal balconies that lead to the loft of a pipe organ, church doors are set into scaffolding, and graceful archways allow entry through crumbling brick and plaster walls – all beneath the soaring vault of Calvary Church, beautiful despite its disrepair, where racks of stage lights hang down above the small section of the sanctuary cordoned off into a theater. (Though visually arresting, this is not perhaps the most efficient design when it comes to lighting: Friar Laurence’s cell in particular suffered from obscurity by both darkness and inconveniently-placed support pillars.) Despite its inconveniences, the set seamlessly melds the production’s inspirations with its performance space.
The modern dress costume design by Aetna Gallagher is more subdued. The differences between the two houses both alike in dignity, exemplified by Lady Capulet and Lord Montague, largely seem to stem from the age-old rivalry of businesswear vs. business casual, with the Prince and his men always appearing in uniform. The younger generation is not strictly bound to this dress code, however: Romeo wears her white button-down and curiously biker-esque blazer with skinny jeans and Doc Martins; Benvolio pairs his waistcoat with skater sneakers; Mercutio sports black nail polish and apparently cannot remember how to operate the buttons on his shirt; Juliet tops off her girly dresses and preppy casuals with an overlarge hoodie whenever alone. Only Tybalt, as the sole character who remembered to dress for a gang fight, fully flouts the sartorial trends of her family, opening wearing a dagger with her punk-rock finery. The color palette is very somber, perhaps an allusion to the unrest simmering just under the surface of fair Verona: most of the cast wear black or neutrals, with a smattering of muted colors and Juliet’s faded pastels. The only spot of brightness is the blood-red trim on the uniforms of the Prince.
As Romeo, Rachel Gluck must not only take on the mantle of one of literature’s most infamous lovers, but given the production’s re-conception of the play as a lesbian love story, must do so in a way still seen by some as controversial. Gluck rises to the occasion, but her greatest accomplishment is the way she imbues all of Romeo’s relationships with the same warmth and love. Her affectionate banter with Mercutio and Benvolio, her enthusiastic friendship with Friar Laurence, and, of course, her passionate love for Juliet all demonstrate the same easy physicality and charisma that clearly explain why Romeo is such an attractive figure around whom the plot revolves. Isa St. Clair’s Juliet is a close match for her, both in the strength of her other relationships (with her nurse, her mother, and her implied closeness to Tybalt) and, interestingly, in her own self-confidence. Aged up to eighteen in this production, St. Clair plays a Juliet who is inexperienced but not naive; though she expresses her doubts, they seem more like temporary hiccups in her process of reaching decisions she has already resolved upon. Unlike the Americans affected by DOMA and more generalized homophobia, Romeo and Juliet’s path to marriage is rather surprisingly smooth: though hidden from their families, their romance has the full support of their closest friends, and both Gluck’s Romeo and St. Clair’s Juliet appear quite secure in their sexuality.
Their confidence is echoed by the majority of the cast, who all possess an impressive facility with the language and handle interesting adjustments to the play’s characters (completely separate from the production’s central conceit) with relative ease. Josh Hitchens is a very youthful Friar Laurence, replacing the standard wise mentor archetype with a charming dynamic where Romeo and Juliet’s confidante is one of their contemporaries, who acts like an – often exasperated – older brother, and who also succombs to the impulsiveness of youth when making life-altering decisions. Aetna Gallagher as Lady Capulet, meanwhile, plays a chilling composite of both of Juliet’s parents. She highlights the toxicity of a character who sports a pleasant façade but instantly turns on her daughter when Juliet refuses to marry a stranger that following Thursday. Gallagher also augments Capulet’s in-text brutal rejection of Juliet with physical and emotional abuse of Tybalt (played by Colleen Hughes). Hughes’ Tybalt is visibly damaged, her openly carried weaponry unable to protect her from her aunt’s ire, and her irrational hatred of Montagues a stark contrast to her almost desperate devotion and easily-shattered bravado.
Director Apple-Hodge strikes a deft balance with these disparate relationships, refusing to let the central romance overwhelm the production. This actually serves to enrich that romance: Romeo and Juliet appear as fully-rounded characters with lives beyond their romantic relationship, giving weight to the sacrifices they make for their love, and deepening the tragedy when their efforts fail. Apple-Hodge’s mastery elevates the occasionally clunky dialogue changes and even attempts to overshadow the awkward stage-fighting and lamentable habit of slain characters to twitch uncontrollably in death. However, in one respect the focus on the the play’s interpersonal relationships actually works to the detriment of the production. By eliminating the thumb-biting scene and replacing it with a brawl of as-yet indistinguishable combatants, the bulk of the feud’s portrayal falls on Hughes’ Tybalt, whose personal reasons for lashing out seem more urgent than simply continuing an ancient grudge. Once Tybalt is dead, the feud essentially becomes a non-issue: additional complications like Paris's death have been cut. The ominous undercurrent of the two families’ mutual hatred and near-civil war is almost lost among individual conflicts – which sadly undercuts the impact of Romeo and Juliet’s death, when the strength of their forbidden love is supposed to bring peace to even the most bitterly divided rivals.
However, those individual conflicts are quite compelling in their own right. As a production of Romeo and Juliet, the Curio Theatre Company’s rendition is slightly flawed but highly enjoyable; as a love story between two women, between family, and between friends, it is wholly remarkable.