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“Romeo & Juliet” women totally rock traditionally male roles.

THE BASICS:  Celebrating their 40th season, Shakespeare in Delaware Park (SIDP) presents Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30pm through July 12th at “Shakespeare Hill” (near the Rose Garden). Free admission, snacks available, gift shop, many porta-potties, bring your own blanket or chair, goodwill offering taken at intermission.  Run time: About 2-1/2 hours including a 15 minute intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  The traditional play delivered in Shakespearian English, wherein the feud between the Capulets (wearing black) and the Montagues (wearing white) in the city of Verona is getting out of hand.  Young Romeo Montague and (very) young Juliet Capulet fall in teenage-hormones-from-hell love and by the end there are five dead bodies on the stage.  Edited for speed, this show employs a variety of young and old actors all wearing head mics so that the dialog is understandable. Four traditionally male roles (Benvolio, Tybalt, Escalus, and Gregory) are played by women.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:

I went on opening night, Thursday, June 18th, and, as he so often does, sound designer Tom Makar had us in the moment even before the start with appropriate modern performances of Elizabethan music. However, after the intermission on opening night, the show was shut down due to a rapidly approaching weather front. So I went back on Saturday, June 20th for the complete show and very much enjoyed watching the first half over again. I mention that because, since it’s free, don’t dismiss the notion of going a few times yourself, perhaps once with your children and then another time with friends. As much as you think you may know the play, Shakespearean English is tricky, and you’ll get some of the rapid-fire (bawdy) jokes better “with practice.”

Everyone is fine in his or her or his/her roles.  Jonas Barranca as Romeo is convincing as an older teenage boy, with a nice blend of physical danger, loyalty to his buds, and innocent goofiness. He has a slight John Leguzamo-like speech impediment that I found off-putting, but he’s pretty cute.  Juliet is played by former SIDP student Kathleen Denecke who is also believable and also pretty cute, so the infatuation angle of the story works.

I once saw a bumper sticker that read: “Insanity is hereditary.  You get it from your kids.” And one of the standout moments is the crazed fury of Lord Capulet (Peter Palmisano) trying to explain to his 13 year old daughter why Romeo is the worst choice and Paris is the best.  In the past I’ve seen this as an attempt by a pompous out-of-touch Lord attempting to further his interests (Paris is a wealthy kinsman of Escalus, the Prince of Verona) and felt sorry for young Juliet. However, having survived the parent-of-a-teenager years I totally got Lord Capulet’s rage and thought that Palmisano added something new to my understanding.

Nick Gerwitz is a standout in the best role in the play – the mercurial, funny, annoying-as-hell Mercutio.  His “Queen Mab speech” is very well delivered with excellent direction from Tom Laughlin.  It’s not an easy speech for modern ears to follow, but Gerwitz’s physicality moves it along.  I often wonder what folks will think 400 years from now watching a tape of an early Robin Williams stream-of-consciousness performance.  It will probably be like us watching that Queen Mab speech.

But let’s get to the really cool aspect of this production. Four male roles are played by women. When others refer to them, they use female pronouns, and in 2015 it all works seamlessly. Marisa Caruso plays Escalus, and we are used to powerful political women (say Angela Merkel).  Ms. Shelby Ebeling plays Gregory, and we like smart-mouthed women (think Melissa McCarthy). What was a little trickier, but again, with excellent direction from Tom Laughlin, was casting Marie Hasselback-Costa as Benvolio, usually “another one of the guys,” but here as a “friend with benefits” of Mercutio. (I never really watched “Friends” but I’m sure there are parallels there.)

However, the best gender-bender was casting the physically fit Mary Beth Lacki (think Michelle Rodriguez) as the hotheaded, but cat-like swordswoman, Tybalt, in fights (plural) choreographed by Steve Vaughan. While the play is named after R&J, it’s really Tybalt who moves things off the dime and sets the action going. And (SPOILER ALERT) while the deaths of Mercutio, Benvolio, Romeo, and Juliet are somewhat antiseptic, the staging of Tybalt’s death at the hands of Romeo is one of the most violent I’ve seen. One can almost see the “Law and Order” detectives saying “Look at the number of stab wounds. This was not just a random killing.”

At intermission I asked Vaughan about casting women in traditionally male roles and he thought that it brought the play up to date and made it more relevant. And, it may have been partly motivated by fairness, since the next SIDP production, “Twelfth Night,” will have all the roles played, as in Shakespeare’s day, by men.

Photo credit: Christopher Scinta

Three-Buffalo

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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