Romeo & Juliet With Women in a Studio

May. 27, 2016
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Milwaukee's Bard & Bourbon makes a fun and breezy appearance onstage this summer with a nearly all-woman staging of Romeo & Juliet. Hayley Cotton and Grace DeWolff play the title roles in a production with simple costuming, folding chairs, benches and a small garnishing of props in an intimate black box theater space. It's more or less a bare stage. Offstage actors are seen sitting onstage when they’re not in the action. In a way, it’s like going and having a beer with Shakespeare at a sleepy, little corner bar somewhere. You get to know the guy and his work a little better when it’s stripped away of some of its formality. Passions and idle philosophies emerge that feel a bit more “real” than you might find in a more pressed and starched production with Equity actors and elaborate sets and lighting and sound design and things. 

The gimmick with Bard & Bourbon is that one member of the cast gets drunk live onstage with a number of shots of liquor taken before the show. (And during the show as needed.) Every night it's someone else. Last night it was Jolie LeBell, who played Mercutio. LeBell proved to be a graceful drunk, embracing the alcohol with ease and poise. She was graciously conscious of the comedy of her intoxication in the role. She did a brilliant job of pouring herself into the right mood without upstaging the actual drama, even managing a very sharp and heartfelt death scene. Yes, she did do a bit of a fight scene while tipsy. One imagines a meeting with Fight Director Christopher Elst regarding the staging of it: (“So there’s going to be a performance where she’s going to be doing the knife fight drunk, is that okay? Could you make sure the fight’s not too complicated?....yes, yes of course we’ll be using rubber knives...”) 

It's refreshing to see an almost all-male cast of Shakespearian characters played by women. Hayley Cotton makes for a charismatic Romeo. I’ve always found the character to be kind of tedious, but thanks to Cotton I now understand how the character can me made to be appealing. Lineve Redlin is suitably authoritarian (and impressively intimidating) as Juliet's father. Megan Kaminsky makes a clever study in contrast as both the hot tempered Tybalt and the wise, even-tempered Friar Lawrence. Kaminsky delivers a powerful strength to both roles. Also cast against tradition is Chris Braunschweig as Juliet's nurse. Braunschweig has a deft grasp of the humor and humanity of the nurse in one of the more sophisticated renderings of the role that I can ever remember seeing.

All too often, Juliet's fair beauty is emphasized in an actress' performance at the expense of her wit. Grace DeWolff is the one actress I've ever seen totally dive into the wit of the character and allow THAT to be the source of the character's charm rather than allowing more of a superficial prettiness of poise and tone to carry the performance. Not content for her portrayal of Juliet to be pretty, DeWolff makes it irresistibly beautiful. There’s an smart, active independence about the her in the role. DeWolff’s balcony scene with Cotton may have been a simple set-up on a technical level, but it had a more textured comic and dramatic resonance than I'd ever seen in any other production. 

With Bard & Bourbon's Romeo & Juliet, Director Katie Merriman has put together a really good staging of a classic that seems to use every living, breathing resource onstage in just the right way. 

Bard & Bourbon's staging of Romeo & Juliet runs through May 29 at In Tandem's Tenth Street Theatre on 628 N 10th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Bard & Bourbon online.


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