Hypokrit Theatre Company posits a futuristic world without cisgender men in their new production R+J: A Reimagination of Romeo and Juliet. With a cast made up of women and gender non-conforming performers, the company maintains the structure of the original Shakespeare; the pressures of family, warring factions, hot-headed cousins, and violence endure. However, the production’s intent is “to explore mainstream feminism and those who are in danger of being left behind in its wake.” The principles behind this feminist probing sound noble but little on stage clearly carried us in that direction.
While high-concept Shakespeare can sometimes expand our understanding of his plays or our world, in other instances it can be a poor dramaturgical fit to carry through the entirety of a play. Director Molly Houlahan’s concern seems to be that mainstream feminism is not dismantling the existing patriarchal, binary structures. So she has chosen to use a patriarchal play to show that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
As staged, the female and gender non-conforming cast portray mostly female-presenting characters in power who are just as bad as the moms and dads of the original play. Apparently, our nature, even without cis men, is still divisive, militant, and oppressive to impetuous youths. Well crap.
But the central problem is that even with this casting choice there is no overt connection to modern feminism because the play is largely performed straight from the original text. With some changes of pronouns and nouns (kinsman to kinswoman etc), Houlahan has less “adapted” Romeo and Juliet and more simply placed it within this imagined future to play out as it always has.
While there are feminist slogans written on the walls, they don’t provide more context to what drives this new world order to return to its patriarchal ways. While Friar Lawrence was addressed as “mother” and “goddesses” were invoked rather than “gods,” these slight textual adjustments did not reframe our interpretation of the play itself. While they remind us of how gendered language is, they don’t necessarily force us to reconsider the behavior of the characters through a gendered lens when things play out as they always have. Spoiler—messenger services in futuristic Verona still suck, poisons are still available to buy on the street, and the kids will die.
Also, since the Capulet/Montague tensions are so family-driven and personal, the play itself does not always feel like the best vehicle for criticizing larger societal issues or a political movement. It’s hard to find a way in this production to lay the tragedy at the feet of modern feminism when confronted with the expected plot of overzealous youths/bad parenting/miscommunications/meddling priests. All we have is the presence of women and non-binary people to extrapolate this indictment of the feminist movement and I strained to see it.
Regardless of intent, the production comes across as no different from any other “straight” production of Romeo and Juliet (well the Shakespearean dick jokes felt strained and less funny). The intimate production tries to allow for a groundlings-esque experience with conspiratorial (though awkward) direct eye contact between actors and the audience at times.
Some of the actors doubled and tripled roles. The strength of performances vary. Tsebiyah Mishael is a terrifying Tybalt and a beatific Friar. Chelsea Fryer is an imposing Capulet. Unfortunately, the weakest in the ensemble were Charlie Aleman as Romeo and Briana Sakamoto as Juliet.
Costumes from Lux Haac clearly identified the militaristic Montagues from the black-wearing chic Capulets. Though I puzzled for a moment too long to recognize the Friar as the Friar in secular draping that was similar in style to other characters’ costumes. A cold light in the Capulet crypt from designer Dallas Estes was chilling.
It’s nice to see a theater company focused on underrepresented voices try to explore politically thorny questions. I just wish the production had found a stronger way to communicate their conceptual thesis.