The story of “Romeo and Juliet” is arguably one of the most well-known in the Western world. The Loyola Theatre Department’s production of the play, however, explores the story in ways audiences might not expect.
Directed by theater professor Ann M. Shanahan, Loyola’s “Romeo and Juliet” subverts the play’s traditional gender roles, meaning that many characters originally written for men are played by female actors.
Audrey Anderson, a junior theater major who plays Romeo, said Shanahan’s decision to have female actors play male roles acts as a commentary on 16th century England, when the play would originally have been performed. At that time, women were banned from the stage and all female roles were played by male actors.
“The audience sees a girl [playing Romeo] and that interplay is the same that would have been at play when boys were playing girls in Elizabethan times,” Anderson said.
She said the production uses techniques based on those of Bertolt Brecht, a 20th century playwright and theater artist, that treat gender as a mask around a character instead of a cut and dry fact about their identity.
“Shakespeare’s mask that he has written [for Romeo] is male,” Anderson said. “But I, as the actor, inhabit this mask with whatever I want.”
Loyola’s production of the Shakespeare classic also shifts the setting of the play from the 14th century to a combination of the Elizabethan period and the 21st century.
“Our production is an Elizabethan mash-up, so it’s grounded in tradition but infused with contemporary nods,” said Anna Joaquin, a junior theater major who plays Juliet. “We’ve also focused on the construct of binaries, specifically in regards to gender, age and class.”
Joaquin said the production examines how the themes of male versus female, young versus old and rich versus poor relate to the well-known love story.
Nathan Kubik, a junior theater major who plays Lord Montague and is an assistant director, said the duality of “two households, both alike in dignity” sets a basis for the production to examine other dueling themes in the play.
“We have been able to enlighten and explore many other binaries that are unseemingly a large part of the play,” Kubik said. “Through this exploration, we’re able to look at what these binaries mean to us today and what it may mean to break and deconstruct the binary.”
Kubik also said the production differs from what audiences might expect from “Romeo and Juliet” in its design elements, which include electronic dance music and glowing props.
Anderson, who played Juliet in a non-Loyola production of the play, said introducing the 21st century to the story helped her connect more with her character.
“Having the modern day accessible to us allowed me to connect with Romeo on a much more immediate and visceral way than I would be if we were only dealing with an Elizabethan time period,” Anderson said. “Making these modern connections, I feel, really allowed myself and fellow castmates to take ownership of Shakespeare’s language.”
Joaquin said her biggest challenge in playing Juliet was taking on a character that is so widely known.
“To stand on a balcony and say, ‘O, Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo,’ and, ‘that which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet,’ and, ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’ is incredibly humbling and daunting,” she said.
To overcome this challenge, Joaquin said Shanahan encouraged her to revisit Shakespeare’s words and let them help define her character.
“When I get caught up and in my head, Ann always reminds me to go back to the text and let the language do the work,” Joaquin said. “I don’t need to overthink anything because everything I need … is in the words.”
Anderson said, in addition to being a beautiful love story, Loyola’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” also contains insights and commentary on the divisiveness of the modern world.
“There is so much violence and hate in our world today, and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ shows a glimpse at one outcome of what a hateful world can produce,” Anderson said. “What are the consequences of our divisions and how can we go about unifying our world?”
“Romeo and Juliet” runs from March 30-April 9 in the Newhart Family Theatre in the Mundelein Center. Tickets range from $6-$20 and can be purchased at the Mundelein Front Desk or at artsevents.luc.edu.