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Romeo and Juliet

MIT Shakespeare Ensemble

Directed by Edward Eaton

March 11–13, 17–19

La Sala de Puerto Rico

The MIT Shakespeare Ensemble performed Romeo and Juliet — at least, an interpretation of it — a few weeks ago, and for those who missed out, it only seems fair to share all that was unconventional about the production. To be perfectly blunt, this is not your high school’s time-updated, boyfriend-and-girlfriend-in-the-lead-roles, by-the-book production. Not even close.

This version of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Edward Eaton, takes a great many liberties with the source material, which may not have been everyone’s cup of suspicious-smelling tea from the local apothecary. Nevertheless, regardless of how much of a purist you are with regards to Shakespeare, there’s a lot to be said for rewarding ambition and originality as well as execution.

The most noticeable change was the fact that nearly all of the lead male characters — Romeo, Tybalt, Mercutio, and Benvolio — are portrayed by women, putting a different spin on the play’s various conflicts. It’s not immediately apparent how far this change extends to the characters themselves, as many (but not all) pronouns and gendered words like “gentleman” are made feminine. The exceptions seem to be consistent across characters, implying that any confusion is on their part and not the audience’s. Changing Romeo’s sex in particular makes for an interesting dynamic between the title characters, portrayed by Grace M. Kane ’11 (Romeo) and Alma Prelec (Juliet). The talent of the cast was the greatest strength of this show, and Kane and Prelec represented the pinnacle of that particular facet.

Regardless of whether you believe the whirlwind collision of Romeo and Juliet is a genuine romance or a childish impulse, it’s hard to not be emotionally invested based on the merits of the acting alone. Ensemble veteran Kane puts forth a truly committed portrayal of Romeo, complete with passion, tears, and an unpleasantly tragic end. Susan Fendell as a creaky, crone-like Nurse and Mark L. Velednitsky ’14 as Friar Laurence (among other roles) are impressive in their own right, while Katherine A. Roe ’14 as Tybalt and Allison M. Schneider ’13 as Mercutio deserve very special mention for their unusually vigorous performances. In theory, one could refer to the character dynamic between the two as “sexual tension” — if the tension wasn’t released at every opportunity. The result is that Tybalt and Mercutio’s rather open relationship provides a foil to Romeo and Juliet’s concealed one.

Those familiar with the play will notice a number of other changes and rearrangements of Shakespeare’s text. For example, the opening chorus is omitted, replaced by the performance of Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech, which is usually halfway through Act I. The performers interact more directly with the audience than some might expect in a Shakespearean show; one of the most humorous moments of the show is when Paris — played by Victor E. Cary ’14 in a manner describable simply as “bro-like” — high-fives an audience member while exiting after confirming his wedding plans with Juliet. Other lines that would ordinarily be spoken to no one in particular are instead addressed to the audience. Deaths in the show are played realistically rather than theatrically, with plentiful blood effects and nasty — rather than neat — beatings and poisonings.

Although the Shakespeare Ensemble’s Romeo and Juliet has closed, it is worth noting what it does to make us rethink an otherwise familiar play, even if some of the liberties it took were a bit odd. If nothing else, it put an array of tremendous actors on display and managed to make Baz Luhrmann look conventional by comparison, and for those achievements, it should be applauded.