Review: Sister Shakes Shakes Up "Romeo & Juliet"

Romeo & Juliet

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Sam Stone

Presented by Sister Shakes Productions at UNDER St. Marks

94 St. Marks Place, Manhattan, NYC

August 5-14, 2022

Everyone reading this probably knows at least one line of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. But even in such an omnipresent cultural text, consider how much potential variation is latent in that line depending on who says it, how, and in what context. With its new production of Romeo & Juliet, Sister Shakes Productions, a company founded in 2017 that centers "female-identifying and non-binary stories and perspectives," offers yet another new experience of this familiar work. Sister Shakes presents its abridged version of the play, running about ninety minutes, with gender-blind casting, a choice which destabilizes and queers the work's heteropatriarchal underpinnings. No matter to what degree one may see the text itself as critical of those underpinnings, this production opens spaces for encountering it from fresh perspectives. Romeo & Juliet is part of FRIGID New York's annual Little Shakespeare Festival, which runs through August 14th. In a gesture to the restrictions of the previous two years of pandemic-era theater, all shows this year, which are available to attend in person or via livestreaming, feature casts of five or fewer persons.  

Of Romeo & Juliet's five actors, only the titular leads don't play other characters, with the rest of the cast taking on three or four roles apiece, which is both impressively executed and leads to some interesting doubling, such as that of the Nurse and Mercutio (Michael Springthorpe, hilarious in both roles), arguably the lovers' closest confidantes aside from one another (the contrast between these two confidantes in turn speaks to the contrast between the lovers' gendered freedoms of movement and association). The characters and the language are given a natural, contemporary feel: no declaiming here. Romeo (Annella Kaine) is excited rather than awestruck to discover Juliet at the ball. Juliet (Shelby Capone) is flustered and flirty in conversation with Romeo in the balcony scene. Juliet's lines in this scene, incidentally, that Montague "is nor hand nor foot / Nor arm nor face nor any other part / Belonging to a man" offer an example of how Capone's emphasis on part activates its potential bawdy meaning, but activating that meaning in the context of its queer staging makes available further layers of meaning that would be absent or at least different in a traditionally hetero production. In the case of Mercutio finding Tybalt (Natalia Urzua) attractive, it seems less significant that the production plays up this dynamic (basis of many a slash fic) than that it does so comedically. That sensibility, in fact, is one of the things that stands out about this Romeo & Juliet: it feels like watching a comedy right up until Mercutio dies, which allows for a lot of experimentation (after that turning point, there's a bit less freedom to play with the characters and the delivery of their lines–understandably so, unless one wishes to abandon the tragic elements for something closer to parody).

The staging includes a number of well observed details, such as Juliet reading Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the Nurse closing (imagined) curtains just opened and the repurposing of a bouquet of flowers upon the discovery of Juliet's apparent death; and Romeo having to get psyched up to drink the poison (sorry: spoilers). Even casting a Juliet taller than her Romeo might be viewed as a small undercutting of norms. The costumes, by cast member Yessenia Rivas, not only look striking but go a long way towards creating the specific atmosphere of the production (those of the lovers, notably, mesh both masculine- and feminine-coded signifiers). Whether playing one or multiple roles, the cast furnishes distinctive performances, from Rivas's high-handed Lady Capulet, clearly accustomed to power, to Kaine's confident, energetic Romeo and Capone's relatably multifaceted Juliet. Urzua, interestingly, plays Paris as a bit of a jerk after his wedding to Juliet is announced, but that bravado disappears in the tomb scene, Juliet's apparent death altering both his and Lady Capulet's (self-)presentation, in another well considered touch.

Whether the phrase "These violent delights have violent ends" makes you think first of Shakespeare or Westworld, Sister Shakes's Romeo & Juliet won't disappoint, infusing a lot of fun–and a lot of queerness–into its tale of woe.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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