Our revels now are ended: R&J’s run has finished. It feels bizarre. Hayley and Mary Ellen and I first started discussing the idea of doing a gender-reversed Romeo and Juliet while we were still working on Twelfth Night back in January. This production lived in our heads for so long, and I don’t think we ever quite got over our amazement at hearing this fantastic cast take our concept and create a world filled with living, breathing, real people.
One of the things we were most excited for throughout the months of planning and then rehearsing R&J was to see how audiences would respond to such a different take on a classic play. A fascinating reaction, and one we’re still pondering, is how many people told us that this was the first time they didn’t hate Romeo as a character. Mary Ellen will blush when she reads this, but I’m saying it anyway: some of that is certainly due to her enormous skill as an actor. But it seems like the gender-reversal also allowed some audience members to see facets of Romeo that surprised them. We had wondered, during rehearsals, if Romeo would be less sympathetic Romea—if the openness of her pursuit of Julian and the volatility of her emotions would strike some people as more off-putting in a young woman than in a young man. So we’re very intrigued by the fact that, to many people, the exact opposite happened: Romea became more sympathetic. The production may be over, but we hope our conversations with people who saw the show aren’t. We’re still investigating our own and other people’s reactions to R&J, and we’re eager to hear more of your thoughts about aspects of this production that interested or surprised you.
I’m definitely still parsing through my own reactions to and insights gleaned from this production. For me personally, one of the moments in R&J that landed most intensely was the scene in which Juliet refuses to marry Paris. That scene is frequently staged with a lot of physical violence between an intimidating grown man and young, vulnerable girl. That’s often very effective, and the presence of at least a serious threat of physical violence is definitely there in the text (“my fingers itch”)—and our ferocious Capulet did indeed slap a stunned Julian. But for the first time, I completely understood that the most serious threat in this scene came when Capulet told Julian, “Graze where you will, you shall not house with me… An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend/An you be not, hang, bed, starve, die in the streets”. As played by the fantastic Katherine James, it was clear that Capulet was deadly serious. The physical threat to Julian was less prominent when Capulet was a woman and Julian was a six-foot-tall man. What came to the forefront was the reality that Julian would be kicked out of the house and left to fend for himself if he refused to marry Paris. In the dangerous Verona of Romeo and Juliet, that meant death or entering religious orders. The stark reality of how few options Julian/Juliet has at that point in the play—the fact that the character is treated as a possession, to be given away at the will of someone else—landed with me for the first time.
I’ve also had several fascinating conversations about why we kept the famous last couplet: “For never was a story of more woe/Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” To be honest, while we looked at ways of making it “Julian” and “Romea”, there was no way to do so without severely altering the text or sounding like Billy Crystal as the priest in The Princess Bride (“For never was a story of more WAH/Than this of Julian and his RomeAH.”). But even if we’d eventually managed to find a way to rework that couplet, we would have kept it as is. There was some initial concern that it might take audiences out of the story to remind them in the final moments of the production, “Hey, remember, you’re seeing a gender-reversed version of the real story.” But I think that reminding audiences of the original text was actually the perfect way to end our show. This whole process has been about Shakespeare’s text: we wanted to engage with it, and explore it, but it wasn’t ours—it was Shakespeare’s. Or it was ours and Shakespeare’s. So in the end, bringing Romea and Julian back to Romeo and Juliet felt exactly right.