BY SANDY STAGGS
Love’s labor is not lost in the brand new Guerrilla Shakespeare Company’s premiere production of the Bard’s most beloved romantic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.”
Founded by Upstate actors Crystal Marie Stewart and Micah Miller, this unique theatre group is intent on breaking barriers and defying gender tropes by presenting classical works with a modern twist, and maybe even a gay sensibility.
In this mostly-female production last night at the Quest Brewing Company (one of four venues this renegade troupe will be commandeering over the next two weekends), Stewart, a well-known Upstate actor who this summer starred in both “Othello” at The Warehouse Theatre and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with the Upstate Shakespeare Festival, plays Romeo, a butch lesbian youth, opposite Giulia Marie Dalbec’s 14-year-old Juliet.
These young lovers share many a smooch and the chemistry between them is wholly tenable, even engaging, as Juliet shuns her family-appointed male suitor, Paris (Sam Nelson), while Romeo becomes a wanted woman for slaying Tybalt (Eric Spears). And, well you know the ending.
Scenes and characters have been reduced or eliminated altogether in this poignant 90-minute version directed by Robert Fuson, previously at the helm of Rebecca Whitten’s “To Feel Together: A One-Woman Show on Consent” and Edward Albee’s “Zoo Story” at The Warehouse Theatre.
Setting the story in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s (established by George Michael’s “Faith” at the close of Act 1), Fuson presents a judicious adaption here, as well as a mastery of the text. And his work is at its most maverick in devised sequences that involve the entire ensemble, whether in black hoodies creeping around the action at hand, or at the masquerade ball/rave backed by a haunting trance track.
Stewart gives a full-throttle performance that is commendable in its charm and steadfast in a steely trajectory of passion and rage, while Dalbec’s ponytail, child-like twisting of her blonde hair, and irresistible naiveté, assure her character’s arc into maturity and a de-flowered, tragic woman who runs out of options.
But don’t get wrapped up in the gender-bending dynamics and non-traditional casting. Pronouns are irrelevant, the gender of the characters is secondary as all of those labels dissipate quickly when this talented cast breathes life into these iconic roles.
The stakes rise exponentially in any scene with Cameron Trieper as the impertinent Nurse, one of the Bard’s most shrewdly-written supporting characters in his canon, right up there with Malvolio in “Twelfth Night.” Emanating both sass and comedic relief (“Oh My Back! Oh My Back!), Trieper lends both credence and fortitude as Juliet’s dominating confidant and protector.
That goes for the sparkling Kate Evans too as Mercutio. Playful and with a refined technique and comfort level with Elizabethan prose, Evans is the most animated in the cast as Romeo’s carefree BFF who can steal a scene handily with merely a facial expression.
Matronly and ordained with an aristocratic and conservative air, Bethany Carper Reed shines as Lady Capulet, while a rousing Dave LaPage is a commanding Lord Capulet, particularly in his impressive dramatic crescendo.
The fight choreography by Maury Reed makes a solid, if not disturbing impact, especially when we bear witness to men beating up women.
But this tragic and twisted tale should resonate in today’s social and political climate immensely, as the Guerrilla Shakespeare Company has plenty to say about the high rate of suicide among LGBTQ teens.
This terrific supporting cast includes Laura Bunn as Friar Lawrence, Caroline Jane Davis as the Prince, Sarah Anderson as Lady Montague, and Mae Tromsness as Benvolio.
All shows start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5. Visit the Guerrilla Shakespeare Theatre Company on Facebook for the latest updates.
Thursday, September 14:
Quest Brewing Company
55 Airview Dr., Greenville, SC 29607
Fridays September 8 & 15 and Saturday September 16:
188 Kerns Ave., Greenville, SC, 29609
Saturday September 9:
Sans Souci Community Garden (Outdoor)
12 Ethelridge Dr., Greenville, SC, 29609
Sundays September 10 & 17:
914 Easley Bridge Rd, Greenville, SC, 29609