Romeo and Juliet Revisited surges on female power

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Island theatre fans suffering the sad loss of live events have something to look forward to at last as exitStageLeft steps in as the first local company to hit the boards since the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Those boards are figurative in this case, since the show is a minimalist production being staged in Centennial Park. The script of “Romeo and Juliet Reimagined” likewise hangs on a pared-down cast — but this original adaptation is anything but simple. Director Christina Penhale and four young women present an all-female take on Shakespeare’s tragic love story that weaves the seed material into modern times and involves each actor portraying multiple characters.

Inspired by an earlier adaptation featuring four boys, the exitSageLeft version sets the drama in a repressive all-girls school.

“The premise is the female voice and how these young women begin to discover what that is for themselves through the playing of this text,” Penhale explained.

ExitStageLeft had planned to put on Pericles for its summer Shakespeare in the Park show this year, while Romeo and Juliet Reimagined was to be scheduled in the spring. The original cast had started rehearsals of that script when provincial health orders against gatherings came into force. The easing of restrictions at the end of June meant the company could use the park space it had pre-booked and get the play already in progress back on track.

Recent Gulf Islands Secondary School graduates Kahlila Ball, Calla Adubofour-poku and Amelia McCluskey co-star along with Lois Warwick, who replaced the Salt Springers’ usual collaborator Jo Gaffney due to a scheduling conflict. Warwick played MacBeth in an all-female production of that tragedy, which exitStageLeft company member Jeffrey Renn directed for Douglas College Studio Theatre last fall.

“We’ve had a short window to pull it off because all of them are off to other theatrical life adventures elsewhere,” Penhale said. “But we’d gone 40 pages into the text with blocking before COVID happened and they remembered almost all of it when we came back, and Lois is a super quick study.”

Penhale said she was inspired to produce the play at first because she wanted to see Ball play Romeo. The actor has been with exitStageLeft every season except for the very first one in 2014, starting when she was 12.

Ball has embraced the challenge with McCluskey playing her Juliet. But each actor has the difficult task of playing several Shakespeare characters and also embodying a character who is doing that.

“I feel like the casting was really smart and by keeping it so small, it makes a very simple but strong statement about femininity that I feel hasn’t been done a lot. In casting four people to play many roles and two stories, almost, it just demonstrates we are more than one thing,” Ball said.

The issue of youth voices striving to be heard and taken seriously is another theme of the play, and one the teen actors can relate to. Adubofour-poku observed it echoes throughout Shakespeare’s original text and the contemporary story.

“I think when we are taking on these roles and playing both adults and children and there’s that balance, there’s a lot that bleeds into our real lives as well,” she said.

Casting against the norm has increasingly become a tool that modern theatre directors are using to interrogate systemic assumptions and power dynamics. Similar to how the hit musical Hamilton casts people of colour to portray America’s founding fathers, gender reversals can highlight problematic issues while still celebrating source material. ExitStageLeft previously produced The Taming of the Shrew with women playing the male roles as men, and vice versa, to terrific effect. Larger-scale companies have started casting The Tempest’s Prospero as a woman in recent years.

In this play, the device is perhaps most prominent in scenes like the one where Juliet’s father threatens to disown her after a violent argument. It takes three of the girls to become Lord Capulet, underlining a very skewed power differential.

“There’s so much power, I think, in young women reclaiming that role,” McCluskey said. “Because we’re all that age that Juliet was in that situation, or just a little bit older. So it feels powerful and it almost feels liberating to be portraying it in that way rather than what is often an over-dramatized portrayal of violence. And sometimes it’s almost written off.”

“You kind of have a moment to understand where the power trip is coming from, but at the same time, it’s terrifying to be in,” Warwick added.

The show runs July 24, 25, 29, 30, 31 and Aug. 1 at 7 p.m. and there will be one 2 p.m. matinee on July 26. To maintain physical distancing rules, only 40 tickets will be offered per show and people must bring their own camp chairs or blankets. There will be no intermission or concession.

Tickets will not be available at the gate; email info@exitstageleftproductions.com to purchase. A few tickets will also be available at Salt Spring Books.

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