Review: Pride Arts Stages Shakespeare’s R & J, the Classic Romance, With a New Kind of Magic

Four young women actors, dressed in today’s version of a parochial school uniform (of this, more  later) mime a school day, beginning with their confessions. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” They spend an instant in English class, then briefly study Latin. “Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amatis, Amant!” Then math. “The hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the remaining sides!” 

Then in the dead of night, they discover a book titled Romeo and Juliet and begin to read and discover its magic. That’s how Shakespeare’s R & J begins at Pride Arts, where the familiar Shakespearean play is performed by four female students. (Joe Calarco’s script was originally written with four prep school boys as the cast.) Amber Mandley directs this delightful romp through the classic love story and its tragic ending. (“For never was a story of more woe / Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”) However, Calarco adds a note of hope to the ending of his adaptation.

The characters are named Students 1, 2, 3 and 4. Student 1 (Madelyn Strasma) reads and plays Romeo and others; Student 2 (Luz Espinoza) plays Juliet, Benvolio and others. Student 3 (Hannah Eisendrath) plays Lady Capulet, Mercutio, Friar Lawrence and others. Student 4 (Isabel Lee Roden) plays the Nurse, Tybalt and others.

Students 4 and 3—Isabel Lee Roden and Hannah Eisendrath. Photo by MarisaKM.

At first, the students pass the book around and read from it. But gradually they become their Shakespearean characters and perform off-book. The book itself appears again and again as an icon of the performance. 

The plot continues according to an abbreviated version of Shakespeare’s script, with the family feud between Juliet’s family (the Capulets) and Romeo’s (the Montagues) guiding the plot. Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love. Romeo and his mates battle in the street with the supporters of the Montagues. Lady Capulet tells Juliet that her wedding to her parents’ choice of a mate will take place next week; R & J are married in secret. Juliet goes to Friar Lawrence for help; the Friar, who hopes to reconcile the two families, conceives a plot to help the young couple and bring about that reconciliation. 

Mandley keeps the story moving briskly and the four actors perform as a coordinated team under her direction.(Co-assistant directors are Elissa Wolf and Magdiel Carmona.) The four talented actors play their several roles admirably, although it was not always clear which friend or relative of the warring families they are playing. 

 A lot of action takes place in this simple setting (design by Brett Baleskie), which features a fortuitous balcony. Students improvise props; a cane and an umbrella become swords for the street fights; flashlights become the moon in the balcony scene and lighting for other scenes. (Props by Nga Sze Chan; fight choreography by James Stone. Sound design by Valerio Torretta Gardner and lighting by August Tiemeyer.)

Students 2 and 1: Luz Espinoza and Madelyn Strasma. Photo by MarisaKM.

The students’ costumes (created by Shawn Quinlan) support their character changes as they remove and rearrange parts: Hot pink blazers over coordinated vests or sweaters, short plaid pleated skirts, knee-high socks and black patent-leather oxfords. 

You may assume that since the play is produced by Pride Arts, which often performs LGBTQ theater, that Shakespeare’s R & J is a lesbian romance. But it isn’t exactly. The play shows how young women discover the varieties of love and sweet romance, as well as lust. Playwright Calarco says in his introduction to the play's 2015 edition that he had at first denied that it was a “gay play,” for fear that might minimize its production potential. But now, he writes, "It was about gender roles. It was about unearthing and highlighting the passion and violence in Shakespeare's text. It was about the transformative power of art. It was about what it means to be young. It was about what it means to be in love. It was about what it means to be in lust …. Well, guess what? It is also about what it means to be gay.”

Shakespeare’s R & J continues at Pride Arts, 4139 N. Broadway, through March 24. Running time is about two hours with one intermission. Tickets are $35 for performances Thursday-Sunday. 

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.