A Teen's Trial

A group of Shakespearean women gather to decide the fate of Juliet in the wonderful 'Immortal Longings'

Last year, choreographer Mark Morris revived the 1935 original version of the Soviet ballet treatment of Romeo and Juliet by composer Sergei Prokofiev and dramatist Sergei Radlov.

Not Shakespeare's original version, but Prokofiev's original version: Juliet recovers from her drug-induced coma just in time to keep the despairing Romeo from killing himself, and the young lovers conclude their story with a dance of joy.

Prokofiev and his colleagues decided to junk the happy ending before the ballet's premiere in the 1930s. But they seem not to have consulted Juliet. Would the 14-year-old heroine really prefer to end up dead in a cold tomb?

Absolutely not, as she makes clear at the beginning of the Rogue Theatre's Immortal Longings, a new play written and directed by Joseph McGrath with substantial help from William Shakespeare. Ten of the bard's best-known female characters, from tragedies, comedies and histories alike, assemble to argue the merits of Juliet's plea for a happy ending. They illustrate their discussion with key scenes from their own plays. Portia, from The Merchant of Venice, being the one woman here with any courtroom experience, will decide Juliet's fate.

This is a fine game that McGrath is playing with Shakespeare's characters, but it's also much more than that: It's a study of character motivation and the demands of tragedy, engaging and entertaining from beginning to end.

You don't have to be a Shakespeare expert to appreciate Immortal Longings; each character and her situation is succinctly introduced before she gives her testimony, and if that's not enough for you, character synopses are tucked into the Rogue's typically informative printed programs. But most importantly, each woman's argument and excerpted Shakespeare scene takes a secure place in McGrath's dramatic structure. This is not just a greatest-hits medley; it's a coherent, illustrated discussion that manages to provoke a fair amount of laughter as well as thought.

And like any good show, Immortal Longings leaves us wanting more--specifically, full-length productions featuring some of these actresses in the roles they only tease us with here. Dallas Thomas, for starters, is one of the most believable Juliets I've seen: girlish and chattery (even--especially--in the famous balcony scene) and emotionally mercurial. Cynthia Meier's Lady Macbeth is terrific, in every implication of that word. Alida Holguin Gunn's Kate, from The Taming of the Shrew, is smart and sharp, and conveys just the right degree of sourness. Susan Arnold's Cleopatra doesn't resort to spitting venom, like the asp at her breast; she retains her dignity despite the indignities she suffers.

McGrath employs Ophelia for comic relief, which initially seems a bit cruel, but Shakespeare himself did turn the girl quite batty before drowning her in a stream. As directed by McGrath, Laine Peterson plays her rather like the Delight/Delirium character from Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels: childish and unstable, yet surprisingly perceptive.

The other actresses make less of an impression, mainly because of the limitations of their roles here, although Chelsea Bowdren is a suitably tomboyish Rosalind, and Lesley Abrams brings good-humored gravity to the role of Portia. Most of them are fully comfortable with their dialogue, matching their delivery of the Shakespeare lines to McGrath's original material, which echoes Shakespeare's cadences but employs a vocabulary that seems perfectly fluid and natural to our modern ears.

McGrath is also a fine director, which is especially evident in his deft staging of a confrontation between Kate and Petruchio (male roles, when needed, are assumed by the women, a clever inversion of the practice in Shakespeare's day). Little things count, too, like a quick and very funny bit of business with a book when Ophelia spouts "to be or not to be."

Immortal Longings is another strong, intellectually stimulating production by a company that specializes in such things.

If you don't quite get what's going on, or if you want to argue with McGrath, stick around for the talkback that follows each performance. And there's more to come after that. The Rogue's "After Curfew" series, in association with The Now Theatre, presents a rarely encountered half-hour afterword: Tennessee Williams' This Property Is Condemned.

It's less a play, really, than a character sketch. Willie is a 13-year-old girl decked out in cheap jewelry and a velvet party dress that's too big for her; in one hand, she holds a rag doll, and in the other, there's a rotten banana, and Willie is balancing herself like a tightrope walker along the railroad tracks. Every day, she tries to go a little farther on the tracks, but she always starts out from the same point. You can make of that what you will.

She's the sole survivor of her family, living in a former boarding house (which bears a sign that provides the play's title), dreaming of growing up to be just like her dead sister, who it turns out was not exactly a good role model. Willie is Blanche DuBois as little girl lost, and she tells her story to a slightly older boy whose only function here is to spur on Willie's near-monologue.

Laine Peterson switches out of Ophelia mode for the role of Willie, and her nasal voice is a perfect fit for the character, although Peterson seems to be playing her a bit younger than 13. Likewise, Nic Adams comes off as much less than 16 in the role of Willie's interlocutor. (Once again, Adams, who also directs this bare-bones production, casts himself as a thwarted figure listening to somebody else's harangue.)

By the end, one wonders which will be torn down first: the old house or young Willie.