Romeo & Gangsta Babe

Gender-Bending Shakespeare At Borderlands Theatre.
By Margaret Regan

SUPPOSE FOR A minute that Juliet were the amorous lover who leaps orchard walls to pursue her beloved Romeo; that it's she who crashes parties, who clashes swords in the streets with the enemies of her family. And suppose that Romeo were the demure young thing ruled by parents and nurse, locked up most of the time behind the palacio walls.

That's how director Chris Wilken conceived the new Borderlands/Pima Community College production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. And it's amazing what a sea change Wilken's gender-bending has made in the familiar story of the star-crossed lovers.

Here Romeo is not Montague, but Capulet. (The switch is also a nice play on Shakespeare's musing over "What's in a name?") Played by F. Michael Alvarado, Romeo is a male, but he speaks the feminine lines the Bard gave to Juliet, and he has a girl's restricted life. Instead of enjoying his usual freedom to run the streets with his combative buddies by day, to carouse by night, this Romeo stays close to home, subject to the tyrannical whims of his father (Hector M. Ayala), called Mister rather than Lord Capulet in this modern version.

This altered Romeo strikes us as oddly passive after Juliet is exiled for killing his cousin Tybalt in a street brawl. He weeps for her at home instead of, say, manfully getting on the road and chasing after her. When Capulet orders his son to marry Paris, in this rendition a comically slutty rich girl in a leopard print skirt (Rachel K. Mandelberg), Romeo seems almost cowardly when he doesn't just proclaim the fact of his prior marriage to Juliet.

In other words, the conventional female constraints and characteristics that Shakespeare wrote into his heroine's part stick in the craw a bit when forced onto a man. And that's exactly the point. Juliet, engagingly played by the stalwart Jennifer Fisk, by contrast is an admirable girl of action, by turns passionate and active and morally astute. The gender switch makes us realize, if not for the first time then at least with renewed intensity, just how much the classic characters of this play act out archetypal gender roles.

But Wilken has played around with more than sexual identity in his accessible version of the play. More conventionally, he's brought the Italian medieval drama from the streets of 16th-century Verona into the late 20th-century Southwest, and in the process he has given the old story an admirably young spin. After all, this is a story about hot-and-heavy adolescent sexuality, about the transcendent emotions of first love, and the quick-trigger passions of teen turf warriors.

Wilken says he didn't have the recent movie in mind when he conceptualized his production, though both versions share a modern setting and contemporary alternative music. In the Borderlands play, the marauding Montagues and Capulets who plague the prince's peace are converted into modern-day street gangs. They are armed not with the ubiquitous handguns of contemporary Tucson, though, but with chains and pipes and the occasional deadly pocket knife. And, following along with the gender-bending, most of these gang-bangers are girls, tough chicks in black lipstick and black pants and skin-tight tops. In a nod to their Southwestern roots, these combatants have been renamed Chata and Rosina and Selena. When these swaggering characters go to the Capulets' ball, they dance in a mesmerizing rave.

Juliet's palace has been transformed by designer WX into Romeo's crumbling adobe, adorned by a series of platforms and staircases reminiscent of the fire escapes in West Side Story, still another version of the old tale. Painted backdrops suggest the Catalina mountains. When Juliet is exiled she goes not to Mantua but across the border to Sonora.

The actors, a mix of local professionals and Pima students, overall turn in fine performances. Apart from Fisk's standout Juliet, Cynthia Meier is splendid as the Nurse, a bawdy character by turns loving and morally vacillating, and J.D. Smith is persuasive as Friar Laurence. Patrick Burke is a memorable Mercutio, the witty Montague friend whose murder starts the love story on the road to its inevitable tragic end. Allison Rénee Bauman delivers a particularly vicious Tybalt.

Shakespeare's text has been trimmed in the interests of brevity (the play runs about two hours counting intermission), and key characters such as Montague and his wife have been eliminated without too much harm done. Romeo and Juliet is full of exceptionally beautiful poetry, and luckily its lyric flights have not been unduly damaged by the necessary changes of "he's" to "she's," and so on.

The final scene, wherein the bodies of the dead young lovers are discovered by their distraught families, is appropriately stark and moving. But it's a pity the prince's speech castigating the parents has been removed, because it embodies the moral crux of the story: The hatred between the two families has directly caused the deaths of their beloved only children. In Shakespeare's wrenching text, the stern prince rails against the two heartbroken fathers:

"Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!

See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,

That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!

All are punish'd."

The Borderlands/Pima Community College production of Romeo and Juliet continues at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 10, 11 and 12, in the Proscenium Theater, PCC Center for the Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets are $10 general, $8 for seniors, $6 for students and children. Student rush tickets are available 15 minutes before showtime. For information and reservations call 882-7406. TW

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