Ampersand: A Romeo and Juliet Story
by Mariah MacCarthy; directed by Amanda Thompson
music by Brian Kirchner
The Ellen Stewart Theatre @ La Mama
There’s something thrillingly off-kilter about Mariah MacCarthy’s new play, Ampersand, a genderfucked version of Romeo and Juliet in which our star-crossed lovers are a very complicated lesbian couple. When Romeo Montague, a young Melissa Etheridge-style singer, shows up at the Capulet’s ball in full drag king regalia, hiding not only her familial allegiances but also her gender, it’s clear that the stakes have been raised for our central pair. Identity becomes, even more so than in Shakespeare’s original, a shifting, evolving dynamic that’s very much in play as our protagonists near their fateful end.
Though Romeo and Juliet is the source material, this is very much a play set in the present day, in Iowa. Though the characters’ diction is modern, however, the woes are the same – two warring houses, this time with political matriarchs at the center (played, somewhat unevenly, by men in drag).
MacCarthy has an ear for colloquial dialogue; the scenes between the central lovers in particular shine. Lauren Hennessy in particular impresses as Romeo, the more “butch” of the two. As her character develops, it’s clear that not only the off-the-cuff comedy of the piece, but also its restless core, come naturally to Hennessy. Brigitte Choura, as Juliet, serves as a fantastic complement. Her ambivalence seems wholly natural and allows an audience a window into the element of surprise central to the lives of these two lovers. Jordan Tierney is particularly winning as well as Romeo’s bestie, Mercutio (or “Merc” for short).
Less successful than the punchy script is the music, by Brian Kirchner. Though there are some lovely melodies throughout, particularly songs like “Not Your Name,” the haunting “How Will It Happen to You,” and “You, Ampersand, Me,” the bare bones nature of the orchestrations (mostly piano and guitar) undercuts the presentation of the musical numbers. When, in the number’s big dance sequence, the songs take a self-consciously witty Gaga-esque turn, the piano accompaniment can’t quite do the trick. Later, when fairly professional-sounding pre-recorded backing tracks appear for other numbers to better effect, it’s unclear why the instrumentation throughout is less consistent.
The show’s two-and-a-half hour length is similarly trying. For all the standout moments throughout, the story here could have been told in nearly half the time. Paring down the excesses of the piece, including some of its more emo extended musical sequences, might have left the production with a stronger, meatier core. At the center of the play, after all, are two headstrong women who barely need so many distractions at their periphery.
Remaining Shows: THURS 18 @ 2, SAT 20 @ NOON, SAT 27 @ 7:45