Footsteps Theatre Company

It wasn’t until around 1670, about a generation after Shakespeare’s death, that women were finally allowed to play women onstage. Everything promised to be a bit more true to life.

Or did it? In recent years companies in Chicago, New York, and London have taken to performing Shakespeare with all-female casts, shedding new light on these classic plays. Chicago’s Footsteps Theatre has successfully staged all-female versions of Two Gentlemen of Verona and Hamlet, and now it has a new all-women production of Romeo and Juliet. This version shakes the dust off Shakespeare, gives his poetry new meaning, and–more important–completely entertains its audience.

Let’s be honest. Few productions of Shakespeare are ever pure entertainment. There’s too much poetry, too much meaning, too much history weighing them down like so many pounds of velvet costumes. Romeo and Juliet may suffer the most from its fame. Its name is synonymous with romantic love, so that the minute you get men and women together onstage in it they seem to automatically play their characters according to silly notions of what love is–which often clouds the real action of the play.

Director Jean Adamak easily avoids this trap with her all-female cast. By requiring women to interact romantically–even sexually–with other women she breaks the romantic stereotypes every actor brings to this play. So Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting is played as a thrilling flirtation, rather than as the first meeting of the two greatest lovers in history–which is more genuine. Their kiss might not be anything more than that. The weight of the play comes later, after Juliet has spent some time with Romeo.

The play’s ribaldry also comes through in a fresh way. There are a lot of sly sex jokes between Romeo and his pals, many of which get missed in standard productions. It’s difficult, for instance, for a man to get the distance necessary to put across Shakespeare’s mocking of male sexuality. But women can do it at the drop of a hat. Take Mercutio’s line to the nurse, “For the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon!” Most likely when men performed both roles in Shakespeare’s time, Mercutio grabbed the nurse’s crotch, playing on the fact that everyone knew the nurse was actually a man. In this performance the nurse puts her hand on Mercutio’s crotch after that line, and her response–“Oh what a man are you!”–takes on a new meaning.

Much of the clarity of this production can be attributed to Adamak’s highly physical and dramatic staging. This might seem an obvious point, but it’s amazing how many directors overlook it. Here, if the characters didn’t speak their relationships would still be clear through their movements. For example, Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio, pals in the Montague clan, may playfully rough up one another. But when Tybalt, member of the house of Capulet, enters, the Montague boys change demeanor immediately. It’s as if the hair on their backs stands on end: they’re defensive and ready to fight.

When they do fight, the dramatic tension of the story increases (thanks to Teigh McDonough’s intelligent choreography). The stakes–death–seem genuine. This brings up another often overlooked point about Romeo and Juliet: it’s a story of violence just as much as it’s a story of love. Therein lies the tragedy, and Adamak is smart enough to devote equal attention to both.

In this production the tragedy feels genuine because the characters seem real; their personalities outshine the poetry of their words. Here Rachel Ferrari’s Lord Capulet has a warm sense of humor. McDonough’s Tybalt is driven and serious-minded. Jann Iaco’s nurse is a dim-witted goofball who loves Juliet dearly.

And then there are those star-crossed lovers. As Juliet, Diana James exudes a youthful innocence. She can completely delight in Romeo’s love because she has known no sorrow. Her sense of humor sparkles with a sly wit and a lust for life. Likewise, her pain at the end of the show cuts all the more deeply because her heart is innocent.

Rebecca Covey gives us a Romeo full of yearning, poignantly moving from boyhood to manhood. Her Romeo has a solid sense of right and wrong. When, on his wedding day, Romeo kills Juliet’s favorite cousin, Tybalt, his agony is palpable. In the second act he breaks down at the friar’s feet like a little boy. Later he dies in battle like a man. But by the end of this production it’s Romeo’s thwarted love that stands out. The audience actually feels that two fresh souls have left the world. The agony of this is what makes the play a classic.


Folio Theatre Company

In Othello, another tale of passion gone awry, jealousy is the source of tragedy. Unfortunately, in Folio Theatre’s production the tragedy never really heats up. The actors never discover the humanity of their characters, and they seem overwhelmed by the weight of Shakespeare’s verse.

As Iago, the cunning and jealous manipulator of Othello’s tragic death, Jim Roof is passable at best. Roof lets his lines roll off his tongue without much attention to Iago’s thought processes; never do we see the wheels turn in his head, never do we feel his jealousy. Worse, the thing he seeks to destroy–the love Othello and Desdemona share–barely exists. No sparks fly between Reginald Hayes’s Othello and Deborah King’s Desdemona. Their few caresses are cold, their glances frosted over, their lips stiff when they pronounce their love.

Much of this could have been overcome with some creative staging–simple things, like putting the two lovers nearer to each other and telling them when to touch to at least give the illusion of passion. But director Alec Wild doesn’t do much with the staging. When one person talks, the others stand dully waiting for their turn to speak. Even the fighting is sloppy. In the play’s most tragic moment Othello faces the audience and plainly shoves his dagger between his arm and rib cage–then expects the audience to think he’s killed himself. Kirk Sanders delivers a respectable performance as the noble Cassio, and Jack Sanderson pulls off some good moments in his three small parts. Otherwise the acting is stiff, the language flat, and the story dull.