Shakesqueer Vermont’s 'Romeo & Juliet' Plays with Gender and Sexuality | Theater | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Shakesqueer Vermont’s 'Romeo & Juliet' Plays with Gender and Sexuality

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Published June 1, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Shakesqueer Vermont's rehearsal of Romeo & Juliet at the Plainfield Opera House - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Shakesqueer Vermont's rehearsal of Romeo & Juliet at the Plainfield Opera House

The Plainfield Friends Meeting house buzzed with activity as the cast and crew of Shakesqueer Vermont's production of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet arrived for an evening rehearsal. Outside the building, cast members drilled fight choreography on an old stone wall beside the Winooski River, surrounded by trees and a sea of violets and forget-me-nots. As more people arrived, they greeted each other with bear hugs, then engaged in boisterous chitchat as they scarfed down quick dinners. Children scampered around like wood nymphs from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Familiarity and affinity practically gushed through the air.

Shakesqueer Vermont is a new DIY theater group inspired by a similarly named outfit in Tucson, Ariz. A 2011 book by Madhavi Menon, Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare, also uses the portmanteau term.

Veterans of the Arizona group are among the group of friends who, after working together on various performance art and theater projects, set out to form the Vermont chapter of Shakesqueer. Composed of "lapsed theater nerds" — as the show's director, Mollie McElroy, said before rehearsal — the majority LGBTQ ensemble came together in 2022 to have fun, foster queer community and get back to a pursuit many in the group hadn't engaged in since they were kids.

"At our first rehearsal, [I asked], 'How many folks have not done theater since high school?' Most of us raised our hands," McElroy said.

Shakesqueer Vermont's Romeo & Juliet runs the weekends of June 3 and 10, with live performances at several locations in central Vermont, as well as a streaming version on Twitch. The group will also make an appearance at Central Vermont Drag Ball on Saturday, June 11, at Barre's Old Labor Hall.

Most of the story is the same: Star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet, played by Elsa Engstrom and Natalie Wheeler, respectively, fight to stay together amid their families' ongoing clash. But theirs is a lesbian relationship that queers the script, highlighting marginalized identities.

"It's really cool to be taking something that's in the public domain and saying, 'What would it be like if we could imagine this in a different world?'" McElroy pondered. "It's very affirming to see Romeo and Juliet as a queer, lesbian love story."

McElroy, who's also codirector of the collaborative Central Vermont Playback Theatre, is part of the core group that formed Shakesqueer, along with Leslie Ruster, an Extempo storytelling champion who plays Lady Capulet; and Engstrom, a Shakesqueer Tucson veteran.

Lighting and sound designer Jeff Reinhardt also came from the Tucson chapter and was involved with its debut production of Twelfth Night in 2017. He has lived in Vermont on and off and worked with Bread and Puppet Theater.

"The idea was to challenge the straight narratives around Shakespeare," Reinhardt said of the Tucson group's origin. "There's queerness in that world that isn't really talked about."

Before returning to her home state of Vermont, Engstrom was set to play Romeo in Shakesqueer Tucson's March 2020 production of Romeo and Juliet when the pandemic hit. The two productions share not just team members but props. The Tucson group loaned its stage swords to the Vermont group.

"It's just been very small-town magic," Ruster said.

Aside from queering the main story line and re-gendering many of the characters, the upcoming production reimagines several aspects of the show. The story takes place in an alternate, pre-apocalyptic reality.

McElroy stressed that the show's world is not simply a near-future version of our own. "In creating an apocalypse hellscape with a majority white-presenting group, is that really the ... future that we want to present?" she said. "This is one alternate universe. We recognize the limitations of this group being majority white and that the future is not a white space."

While keeping the traditional setting of Verona, Italy, Shakesqueer Vermont presents it as a city deeply divided by class. The Capulets have the best of everything, while the Montagues struggle to survive.

Finding support for those choices in Shakespeare's text, Ruster pointed out that it's the Capulets who throw the lavish ball during which the lovers meet. Engstrom noted a passage that describes Romeo's means as small compared to Juliet's.

"I don't feel like it's a big stretch to get there," Engstrom said.

Audiences should expect some major changes to the play's well-known story beats. All pronouns and gendered language have been updated. The term "gentlethem" replaces the oft-used "gentleman."

"The intention [was] to completely gender-neutralize all of the characters at the beginning and allow the actors to choose their gender presentation," McElroy said.

For instance, Lisa Scanlon portrays the traditionally male Paris, Juliet's intended, as female. This Paris is an Instagram influencer and vapid socialite encircled by a paparazzi mob.

"I'm playing with Paris as Paris Hilton," Scanlon said.

"Shakespeare messed with gender all the time," McElroy said, noting that, in the Bard's day, men played both male and female roles.

Emily Thibodeau, literary director of the Vermont group Foul Contending Rebels Theatre, made similar choices in a 2021 production of Hamlet. In her collective's vision of the tragedy, the play's Danish kingdom became a queendom, in which the roles of King Claudius and Queen Gertrude were reversed. The show also featured flexibly gendered casting.

"Gender in Shakespeare's writing is fantastically fluid," Thibodeau wrote by email. "When we re-gender Shakespeare, we're reminding our audience that women and queer people are human, too."

Though the show mainly sticks to Shakespeare's text and its Elizabethan English, at the show's end cast members read selections by queer poets Andrea Gibson, adrienne maree brown, Rachel McKibbens and Mary Oliver, diverging from the script into what McElroy called a "dreamscape." Audiences should expect other revisions, as well.

"Do we really want to do a show about queer teen suicide?" McElroy said, referring to conversations the group held during conceptual stages. Though the team members preferred that Seven Days not divulge the new ending, they noted that their version avoids the trap of focusing on queer suffering, often depicted in Hollywood films such as Boys Don't Cry.

"Actually, the tragedy is the families that don't support [Romeo and Juliet]," Ruster said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Sweet Sorrow"