- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

To he or not to he, that is the question posed in director David Muse’s all-male production of Shakespeare’s love-drunk tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.”

Having men perform every role is hardly radical because women were banned from appearing onstage in England until the 1660s. Mr. Muse asserts in the program notes that he thinks the passionate poetry in this timeless tale of star-crossed lovers is “especially glorious in part because Shakespeare knew that two young men would be performing it” and that the male actors would have to be especially convincing to make the audience swoon and forget that Juliet was a lad in drag.

Beyond wondering exactly when the Bard became the exemplar of boy love, you have to ask just what such a casting decision brings to a modern production of “Romeo and Juliet.”

The answer? Nothing.

Granted, raising the testosterone level greatly heightens the sensation of the perils both men and women face in a violent, manly-man world. The Shakespeare Theatre’s version of “Romeo and Juliet” is resolutely anti-romantic.

Without the breathless sense of impossible, transcendent love, the play is reduced to an almost methodical body count and death march, “Macbeth” without the supernatural element.

The actors never melt into the female characters. In many cases, they take a broad, Monty Pythonesque approach to the roles, with piping voices, mincing gaits and frequent gestures alluding to the fact that there are man parts lurking beneath their skirts.

As Juliet, James Davis affects a pleasantly girlish tone but inexplicably lowers his voice from time to time to a thundering, basso howl. That move magnifies the role reversal inherent in the character of Juliet, who is a decisive, take-charge and strapping kind of gal, as opposed to her rather droopy, broody swain, Romeo (Finn Wittrock).

Yet the lovers are played so broadly that the physical chemistry between the two is nonexistent - making the famous balcony and tragic crypt scenes one-dimensional and farcical.

This lack of polish and depth also can be felt in the music, which sounds ragged and underrehearsed, and the clunky set, which features a huge, high balcony that looms over the stage like a heavy brow.

Some smaller roles deliver a glint of the warmth and humanity that “Romeo and Juliet” can offer. Aubrey Deeker is an electrifying and ultimately sympathetic Mercutio, Romeo’s reckless kinsman, a bristling and unpredictable slave to his violent impulses. In contrast to Mr. Deeker’s unsettling swagger is Ted van Griethuysen’s marvelously tempered and contemplative turn as Friar Lawrence.

With this production of “Romeo and Juliet,” you not only miss the feminine temperament; after a while you may begin to resent that so many gifted female actors in town are out of work because of stunts like this.

★★

WHAT: “Romeo and Juliet,” by William Shakespeare

WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 12.

TICKETS: $23.50 to $79.95

PHONE: 202/547-1122

WEB SITE: www.ShakespeareTheatre.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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