THEATRE: Finding Our Season (devised by THEA 210 at the Fletcher Collins Theatre)

Mary Baldwin University’s undergraduate theatre department has had a transformative and multiple-award-winning season. As part of a major overhaul under Dr. Kerry Cooke, Prof. Molly Seremet and Prof JP Scheidler to decolonize the program and develop genuinely shared ownership between students, faculty, and community stakeholders, the department’s theatre season has struck out in bold new directions (including its award-winning production of Fairview as well as its outstanding productions of Cupid & Psyche and Small Mouth Sounds) while the program has built season-planning into its curriculum. Following the Fall course For All Seasons, where students were invited to pitch and debate shows for next year’s season, and a Spring Directing course in which scenes from the shows were workshopped, THEA 210 (taught by Kelsey Harrison) mounted six scenes in an intensive three weeks. This showcase presented the finished work, with the aim of informing the season selection for next year’s full productions.

Brochure for Finding Our Season
Season Found

What distinguished this showcase was the collective joy developed by a tight-knit community, many of whom have worked together repeatedly over the year, including both Theatre Majors and Minors and actors who have returned to this community again and again. From a skateboarding ASM to a rotating and hard-working company of actors, everyone around the stage seemed playfully invested in helping bring their colleagues’ work to fruition, and this was reflected in the choices of plays. Across each of the pieces existed some version of a desire to find meaning and connection, to communicate better in order to solve problems. This community seemed to have decided its mission, and this mission went beyond a desire for representation – though that was a big part of the evening – to a desire to do the work, practically, ethically, and intellectually.

Much of this work was apparently in the selections that most overtly foregrounded issues of class and race. Riane Tolliver’s thoughtful direction of a paired set of scenes from Lynn Nottage’s 2015 play Sweat juxtaposed two reunions: a white man and a Black man reunited with their mothers after eight years in prison. The tension in each pair was palpable; Evelyn Negaard’s performance as Tracey, stooped and tense on pain medication, hostile towards her white supremacist son Jason (Louis Altman) was particularly powerful, full of anger and disgust at a system which gives working people few options; in the paired storyline, Jonathan Delgado’s Chris bore the brunt of his mother Cynthia’s (Lasia Vanlue) anger at the injustices of the system with stoicism. The choice of this sequence beautifully foregrounded the complexity of the intersecting issues. Meanwhile, in a scene from Todd Logan’s Defamation directed by Austin Cox, Altman and Tolliver appeared as competing lawyers, strutting the stage while a Black woman (Vanlue) sued a white man (Sage Mocko) for defaming her by accusing her of stealing his watch. Here, the bathetic comic interjections of the judge (Delgado) created an absurdist frame, allowing comedy to reorient a difficult question as a kind of thought experiment (in the original play, the audience were asked to become the jury). Watching these young directors work through these complex, multi-faceted questions suggested a powerful potential direction for the Theatre season.

Juxtaposed with the social realism of race and class politics were two pieces, both directed by Libby Merchant, that embraced something more heightened and indulged the fascination that this group of students has repeatedly demonstrated this year with the intersection of comedy and pathos. Merchant herself performed a scene from Jen Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties, featuring Betty 2’s Pussy getting a chance to take a microphone and sing a song. Merchant’s performance here was brave – it began with her taking off her dress and exposing herself in soliloquy for the whole sequence – and demonstrated the confrontational potential of this hilarious piece (even if, shorn of the rest of the context of the play, it was difficult to imagine what the larger work might be like). 8 Minutes Left, on the other hand, developed a clear context for its short investigation of a scene with the highest stakes possible, as two friends reunited at the end of the world. The casting here was sublime. Maria Sarri’s manic energy as Trudy, desperate to make up for her feelings of being a bad friend by throwing an elaborate party in only eight minutes, contrasted beautifully with Jovita Roselene’s laid-back, gentle calm as Trudy’s friend Paula. Sarri wouldn’t slow down for a second as Trudy ploughed through the elements of a party (not even allowing Paula to get a knife for the cake and instead insisting they just bit down on the whole thing), while Trudy kindly and slowly pulled her friend together. For all that this was one of the most outright funny pieces, it was also one of the most quietly devastating as Trudy went through the entire gamut of emotions in trying to reconcile grief, joy, terror, and guilt in one short sitting, while Paula reassured her of what was most important.

The final two pieces, however, were deliberately intertwined in ways that showed off the technical skill of this company of students in displays of play that also insisted on community-forming. This evening-capper began with Claire Josefson and Molly Seremet’s co-directed Devised Puppet Show, a show deliberately designed to explore the potential of the students to use their own craft to tell a different kind of story. Seremet, who played host throughout the evening, was interrupted in an attempt to give a lecture on puppetry by the sudden emergence of a range of different kinds of puppet: Walter Pultz’s hand-operated Fab Rick, Josefson’s articulated Bluebird, the wheeled Rizzmaster Lance (Caroline Motley and JP Scheidler), and two tiny glove puppets of the warring Monkey and Starla (Sarri). The chaos of the puppets mimicked the principle of collaborative takeover, the authority of the professor and her projected slides literally being over-written by shadow puppets who tilted and then obscured the text until Seremet left the stage and the puppets bickered among themselves – until, to very pleasing cries from the audience, the seven-foot-tall human-operated Mogda (Kaitlyn Brockman) emerged to chasten everyone. As a proof of concept, this was a fabulous taste of the fun found in exploring the craft of puppeteering.

But even more delightfully, the cast of Footloose then emerged to chase the puppets off, complaining about the disruption to community space. Here, in the largest of the six pieces (directed by Cox and Tolliver), the company reassembled to find the perfect amalgamation of the issue pieces and the heightened creative potential enabled by showing off technical skill. Talford Hayden took centre-stage in the Kevin Bacon role of Ren, advocating for dance. Hayden’s natural charisma comes out best when he’s in roles that allow him to express himself loudly, and seeing him at the podium, pleading with Altman’s Reverend Shaw and finding the bits of the Bible that celebrate dance, felt like a natural fit (as well as beginning the tricky but potentially very rewarding work of exploring what how this text plays out with a Black man in the role of disruptor). Tolliver, Cox, Delgado, Sarri, Merchant, and Mocko all returned along with Joshua Dobson and Amaya Warner, the group building up the happy conclusions of Footloose before leaping into a full-blooded, beautifully choreographed (by Hayden) dance number. And in choosing a play to conclude the showcase which allowed the students to stage a societal conflict over issues, lighten and resolve it through heart-felt empathy, and then dance it out with a demonstration of the group’s technical skill, the piece encapsulated the key elements of the showcase. Regardless of what gets picked for next season, this showcase spoke to a theatre community that has begun seriously doing the work and taking ownership of its values, and which will hopefully continue to find ways to let everyone (literally or metaphorically) dance.


THEATRE: The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 by John Bishop (dir. Jeremy L West for Silver Line Theatre Exchange in partnership with Stuart Hall School)

The time seems right for a revival of John Bishop’s 1987 play The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940. The combination of farce and murder mystery fits well with the post-Knives Out enthusiasm for tightly plotted ensemble murder comedies, while the combination of secret passages, disguises, and ludicrous accents never goes out of fashion. Further, the self-awareness of this comedy – very much a skewering of conventions and headlines of the Broadway of its time – is a nice vehicle for a high school play, in Staunton High’s collaboration with Silver Line Theatre Exchange. This is a knowingly silly play, and Jeremy L West’s production allowed the cast to camp it up for all it was worth.

Silhouettes of 1940s high society people sat or stood around an armchair, two with cocktail glasses, one holding a knife, while a body lies to the side.
Cocktail party

The production began with exactly the right setting of tone, as a German maid, Helsa (Lucas Rosolina) in the middle of cleaning found herself attacked by a masked figure. The comedy of their initial dance (during which the repeated stabbing attempts became mechanically repetitive) was followed by Helsa’s body inconsiderately repeatedly flopping to the floor, forcing the Stage Door Slasher to have to find novel ways of getting rid of her. The irreverence is important to a play in which the attacks come thick and fast, and where the eccentricities of the gathered ensemble of theatre people lead the play to lean heavily into bathos.

Rich theatre patron Elsa Von Grossenknueten (Maggie Anderson) has invited a group of Broadway types to her mansion for auditions for a new play. Aloof director Ken (Michael Hill), moody composer Roger (Amory Harris), and alcoholic lyricist Bernice (Desi Emmert-Hart) are a long-standing team whose previous collaboration, produced by Marjorie Baverstock (Ingrid Anderson) who is also in attendance, was marred by the interventions of the Stage Door Slasher, who killed three women. Elsa isn’t actually putting on a new play – she has invited undercover officer Michael Kelly (Sage Kizer) to help her work out who the Slasher is. But as the assembled party – which also includes ingenue Nikki (Maddie Speights), veteran Irish actor Patrick O’Reilly (Duncan Coberly) and comic Eddie (Liam Evans) – start rehearsing, the lights start going out, and soon the bodies start mounting up.

The game cast seemed to enjoy playing up their stock figures. Kizer and Speights had the most overtly serious roles, with Kizer playing the earnest cop trying desperately to impose any kind of order on proceedings, and Speights giving a great twist to her innocent chorus girl who suddenly shows off a surprising skill set. But they were offset by Maggie Anderson’s flamboyantly gestural Elsa, by the scathing cynicism of Harris’s Roger, and by Emmert-Hart’s increasingly complete disregard for anything going on around Bernice, who even went for another cocktail so she could work on lyrics while being held at gunpoint. And in the spy plotline, Rosolina and Coberly had huge fun with shifting accents and shiftier changes as they cycled through different personas, especially as the apparently unkillable Helsa kept reappearing with no apparent awareness of her previous death.

The real star of the show, though, was Sam Koogler’s lavish set design. The first secret passageway was revealed early on, a bookcase pivoting back to reveal stairs down. But during the second act, it seemed like there wasn’t a bit of the wall or piece of furniture which didn’t slide, spin, or tilt to open up the backdrop, creating a French farce-worthy maze of entrances and exits deployed with particular disregard for the conventions of space and time as the Slasher chased Eddie about the stage. The fun of having a door suddenly open to grab Kelly in the middle of speechifying, or the gang all heading off in different directions to hunt down someone who so clearly wasn’t going to be in any of them, gave the whole a great Scooby-Doo energy.

As the revelations began stacking up in the final act, the cast kept things zippy, though never letting their characters slip (Hill, for instance, keeping up Ken’s detached calm almost until his bitter end). But for my money, the best moment followed the first murder, as the lights went back up to reveal Ingrid Anderson’s Marjorie slumped in a chair, run through with a sword, while the rest of the company went about their rehearsal for several more moments until any of them realised anything was up. The self-absorption, and the comic juxtaposition between a dead body and a show that must go on, perfectly epitomized this very silly, very enjoyable show.

THEATRE: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (dir. Simon McBurney for Complicité) at the Lowry, via livestream

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead isn’t a monologue, but it’s certainly a tour de force for a lone female performer, and when your lead is Kathryn Hunter, it’s no wonder the production is getting such acclaim. Complicité’s latest production is a gift for Hunter, still at the peak of her game. But where her turn in Lear last summer felt unsupported by a messy production, here Hunter is supported by a cast and production working at the top of their game. Complicité’ have always balanced jaw-dropping technical design with intricate movement work in creating their poetic, lyrical pieces, and Drive Your Plow feels like a total piece of theatre, with purpose.

Kathryn Hunter as Janina spreads out her arms.
The one that got away. Photo by Camilla Adams.

The production is based on Olga Tokarczuk’s controversial and award-winning novel, a fable of ecocide and animal rights set in Poland. Hunters are dropping dead, and one woman – Janina Duszejko – starts to think that the animals might have something to do with it. She’s herself a passionate animal rights advocate, who others accuse of caring more for animals than she does for humans, and the authorities turn her away as a crazy person. But more bodies are starting to turn up, and while there are plenty of paw prints, there are no signs of human intervention.

With Hunter standing downstage speaking into a microphone for much of the production, the performance style feels oddly like stand-up comedy at first, especially as Janina picks off notes of rhyming quotations left on the microphone and jokes about having COVID. But really it’s more like a feverish illustrated lecture which Janina slips in and out of. The sparse set is a screen for Dick Straker’s video design, which incorporates overlapping images, surreal flashes, images of animals and, in one powerful moment, the whole video that Janina is watching showing a stag trampling a hunter. Janina is trying to put together a case that nature is fighting back against the hunters, and the stage and the bodies of the rest of the company become her canvas.

While this is a deeply felt narrative of animal rights, it’s also a Gogol-esque satire of small-town governance and petty bureaucracy. Every time Janina tries to report a crime (and much of her anger stems from the disappearance of her own two dogs, who she talks of as her children), she is fobbed off by police and councillors who explain this isn’t really what they do, even though what Janina is asking them to do is to enforce the law. More troublingly, the Catholic church is fully in the pocket of hunters, and the children of the congregation are already being groomed to grow up and become hunters. Much of the text’s most interesting work comes from metaphors of religious consumption, the mass itself becoming an analogue for the hungry cannibalism of the church; and Janina calls out the hypocrisy of a church which claims that God made all and yet that nature needs cultivating rather than being left in peace.

Hunter is magnificent as she rails incredulously against the forces of administrative complacency, while also cultivating relationships with neighbours, fellow activists, a clothes shop assistant, and others. Janina is a fascinating figure, self-aware yet potentially also fantastical. She seems clear-headed as she tries to set out the evidence for her claims, but is laughed away. The climactic revelation that she was the murderer is hardly a shock given her zeal and fanatic devotion to her cause, but what the production does over its three hours is allow its audience to fully inhabit Janina’s complex interweaving thoughts – her ideals, her values, her relationships, her choices. It’s a powerful narrative of direct action against a bunch of deeply unsympathetic figures, and it’s easy to see how it inspired acts of so-called ‘eco-terrorism’. She seems right.

The production does drag a little (not helped at this particular streaming by technical difficulties which meant it started forty minutes late), and while the cast of supporting characters are excellently performed, they also slip somewhat into the broader melange of the production, foils to Janina rather than being separately or independently realised. That is by design, of course, but at times it’s hard to get a clear sense of the tonal and narrative direction of a production which is as given to philosophising and quoting Blake as it is to pursuing the murder mystery. But with a central performance and a technical design as magnetic as this, it’s hard to begrudge spending so much time in its presence.

THEATRE: Gnomeo and Juliet (convened by Austen Bell, Ella Pellegrino, and Jovita Roselene, for the craic, at the Wharf Studio)

Tears (of joy or sorrow, who can say) streaming down her face, audience member Jordan Willis turned to me and declared that this was, unironically, the finest theatre she had ever seen. The first outing of the MBU Shakespeare & Performance community’s [G]no[me]-Renaissance staged readings – “no director, no rehearsal, no idea what we’re doing” – served as a trial run for what will hopefully be the 2024 MFA company’s education show, a no-holds-barred, riotous, script-in-hand performance of the classic film comedy Gnomeo and Juliet. Fueled by end-of-term spirits, perfectly legal beverages, and a healthy dose of incredulity at the plot (especially from those who had no reference point for the film, a state of affairs for which participants now have no excuse), this staged reading of Gnomeo and Juliet – as with Gnomeo’s (Austen Bell) own advice to the over-protected Juliet (Katy Shinas) – threw caution to the wind, refused to accept fragility, and decided not to worry about chipping any pottery.

The cast hanging out in the green room

The plot of Gnomeo and Juliet is, of course, reasonably faithful to the Shakespeare play to which it is indebted. During the escalating rivalry between the rival Reds and Blues, who live in adjacent gardens in Stratford-upon-Avon, Gnomeo (a Blue) meet s Juliet (a Red). Following Gnomeo being blamed for the smashing of Tybalt (an accident which is of course resolved during the credits of the film, though here was left unresolved), Gnomeo is banished from the garden, only to return to claim Juliet just before the two are apparently killed by the rogue Terrafirminator lawnmower (Anna Bigham, who understood the assignment), prompting the reconciliation of their feuding parents (Nora Frankovich and Kyle Showalter) before Gnomeo and Juliet’s survival is revealed. The familiarity of the story was essential to ensuring clarity during the chaotic, semi-improvised event, during which audience members were selected to fill in selected roles (including one professor roped in to read the role of the Statue of Shakespeare in what one audience member acknowledged approvingly as a relatively convincing British accent).

With one of the most elaborate plots constructed this year for a Staunton production – composed of a veritable army of plush toys – the production embraced the playfulness of the film, while allowing the softness of the props to create an atmosphere of chaotic safety in place of the emphasis on the vulnerability of pottery in the original. Props and characters were thrown recklessly across the room (‘IS THAT A PERSON?’ screamed Juliet at one point) as the undirected reading valiantly tried to recreate the speed of filmic cutaways. Jess Snellings received a well-earned roar for her reprisal of her role in 1 Henry VI as the Lord Mayor of London, re-using the same impossibly long scroll in her appearance as the Prologue to tell us a long and boring story. Music cues were generated via Spotify playlist and by group singalong (for the better-known Elton John numbers), with the exception of Ella Pellegrino’s triumphant cameo as the gawkish Paris (“I’m a feminist!”), who threatened briefly to play “Your Song” on recorder. The thrust stage inevitably had very little consistent spatial logic, but worked wonderfully when repurposed as a race track, with Katie Mestres stepping straight out of the Fast and Furious movies to begin the lawnmower races.

A complex mise-en-scene

This was – let’s not beat around the bush – extremely silly. But what was surprising was how much heart the reading found in the story. Bell’s completely earnest Gnomeo cut through the repressive atmosphere set up by Frankovich’s purse-lipped Lord Redbrick and appealed to something fundamental in Juliet, encouraging her to embrace life. Gnomeo brought the same clarity of purpose to the argument with Shakespeare about what should happen in this story; even as Tybalt, Benny (a co-opted and very game Annalise Toone), and others ramped up the comically violent stakes, Gnomeo’s insistence on how things should be made him a moral centre, even when he was cajoled into seeking revenge. Meanwhile, Shinas went method as Juliet, playing the part dead straight in order to stress just what was at stake. The fast production slowed down in particular to emphasise the severity of Juliet being banished back to her garden pedestal and glued in place; where moments before Juliet had been joyfully experiencing her first lawnmower drive, cheered on by the audience, now she was stranded atop a chair, frozen in place, her life over before it had truly begun. And John Williams (fresh off the previous evening’s John Williams Showcase at the Blackfriars), excelled in the difficult role of the plastic flamingo Featherstone. With party hat covering his face as a beak, Williams had his work cut out for him, yet suffused his back story of lost love and long endurance in a dark shed with passion and feeling, that carried over as the Narrator read out the montage of interrupted flamingo romance.

Lavish production design and thoughtful thematically oriented costumes

Perhaps the biggest revelation, though, was Jovita Roselene in the Nurse role of the ornamental frog, Nanette. Jovita’s truly unhinged performance showed (and I’m being entirely sincere here, for the avoidance of doubt) a comic talent hitherto untapped in her performances in the program to date, with expert comic timing around Nanette’s investment in the “DOOMED!” romance, a star-struck enthusiasm for Paris, and a physical commitment to the bit that elevated all of her scenes. While Nanette is a peripheral character, the performance here captured something of the chaos of the production and channelled it into a perfectly pitched scene-stealing turn.

Balcony scene, obvs.

This group of performers has an enviable gift for mischief, which may yet be utilised for evil or for good. For what it’s worth, though, and as deliberately silly as this Gnomeo and Juliet was, this unserious staged reading showcased a serious talent for improvised comedy and for clear storytelling. In the spirit of improv, each joke or accident was picked up as a prompt for further comedy – I was especially struck by one moment in which Frankovich, having missed an entrance cue as Redbrick while too busy trying to remember the lyrics to ‘Don’t Go Breaking My Heart’, channelled the late entrance into a hilarious moment of assumed severity; and Pellegrino’s initial failure to get the bubble gun working to give Gnomeo and Juliet’s meet-cute the requisite atmosphere turned into a joke in itself. The production poster pleads ‘please don’t shut us down’; but in some ways, what Gnomeo and Juliet proved is that this particular group is un-shutdownable, precisely because they turn the risk of failure into the success of live theatre. May nothing ever damage this group’s irrepressible spirit.

THEATRE: Crackbeth (devised by Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble at The Wharf Loft)

‘Come with me . . . wherever I’m going!’ pleaded the newly crowned Malcolm (Dylan Mabe) at the conclusion of Crackbeth. Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble’s end-of-semester blow-out production – a parody of their Macbeth, but newly cast by lot after several hours of the company drinking together, in a wholescale embracement of the principles of Shit-Faced Shakespeare – was neatly summarised by the fresh-faced King of Scotland, as both Malcolm and Treehouse appealed to those around them to go with them on this unexpected journey. And of course, an ebullient audience went with them wholeheartedly.

The rules were simple: this was Macbeth, only faster and improvised. The cast of Treehouse’s production, which has toured schools all year, drew roles out of a hat at the end of an evening of celebrations, and put on the production in a flat thirty minutes (with Rosemary Richards screaming out the remaining minutes throughout the performance). But what could have been merely a drunken stumble through of an existing production (which, let’s be fair, it was) was given purpose and force by Treehouse’s community spirit. Throughout its year of existence, Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble has forged deep community ties, both in its development of relationships with external partners, and in its internal reinforcement of its own caring ethos. Here, in parodying the company’s own work, Treehouse realized its fullest potential as an ensemble that is rooted in its loving care for one another, in its processes rather than its products.

As Crackbeth unfolded – with erstwhile director Katelyn Spurgin paraphrasing the title character’s lines – what became immediately clear was how well this ensemble had paid attention to one another’s work. The chorus of witches – Cole Metz, Kailey Potter, Jordan Willis, and Beth Harris – created their own distinctively silly presence on the stage, with Metz’s First Witch offering tiny bottles of liquor to the play’s main characters, Potter’s Witch rushing about to breathe in their ears, and Harris and Willis rolling about the floor to take up supernatural space. But they also paid homage to the work done by Treehouse’s OG Witches (Cameron Taylor, Kara Hankard, and Rachel Louis) in reflecting back to the gathered community both the physical and the vocal work of the original actors. That is – while the newly cast Witches were deliberately self-indulgent in managing the late-night silliness, they were also deeply invested in paying tribute to the serious work of the company. Each of these performances felt like a caring reminder of the performance that had preceded it, a tribute through parody.

This paying of tribute could have been a disaster in the wrong hands, but here – making this up as they went along – Treehouse’s instincts were gracious and collective. Particularly thrilling were the moments when the audience – most of whom had probably seen Macbeth multiple times by this point – instinctively joined in to create the sounds of knocking for the Porter scene, or the drumbeats for the gathering of the English forces. And among the company itself, even as the individual members desperately tried to work out what they were meant to be doing, the emphasis was always on how they could support one another. And so, the company surrounded Beth Somerville’s Lady Macbeth to enable her fainting and her sleepwalking. The ensemble visibly collaborated to enable Rachel Louis’s Banquo to emerge in unexpected places during the banquet scene to torment Spurgin’s Macbeth. And the company rallied around Mabe’s Malcolm to make clear where the future of this production lay. However much this parodic production was designed as satire, it couldn’t help but reveal the company’s mutually supportive ethos.

Such support was able to sustain some radical re-envisionings of Treehouse’s original production. Particularly entertaining were Potter’s obsessive repetitions of the idea that the play was entirely about James I/VI, a reading laughed at throughout but reinforced by Andrew Steven Knight’s intrusion into the England scene as a quasi-narrator figure insistent on telling the audience about Edward the Confessor, run-time be damned. The reintroduction of Hecate (Kelsey Harrison) was another highlight, the Witches genuflecting to a mistress who threw back the curtains of the discovery space and marched forward to meet Macbeth but had no particular lines or purpose, but was perfectly happy to come in and give Macbeth a talking-to. But fundamentally, what marked the good-humored sincerity of this production was its reimagination of the main production’s own choices – this wasn’t a free-for-all, self-serving parody of the earlier Macbeth, but an engaged and lively reimagination of the choices of each actor by their peers, right down to the sound cues and the nuances of movement. Such precision is testament to how well Treehouse had embraced their ensemble mission over the preceding year.

The improvisatory, No Fear Shakespeare-style language of this production, coupled with its attentiveness to the needs of ensemble members adjusting to each new scene as it appeared, allowed this Macbeth a different purpose to any other Macbeth I’ve seen. By recreating the aural and tactile signifiers of the original production, this comedic reworking showcased the ensemble’s deep investment in the collaborative creation, even as their improvised words made a mockery of Shakespeare’s text. And in this, the company demonstrated quite why they have been so successful over their year of operation: their primary loyalty has never been to Shakespeare, but to each other. And so, Crackbeth managed to be a victory lap, in which Treehouse’s members could briefly embody and pay tribute to each other’s performances, celebrating the pre-agreed beats but with a mutually agreed irreverence that reinforced just what has made this ensemble so precious.

THEATRE: Born With Teeth by Liz Duffy Adams (dir. Rob Melrose for Alley Theatre at the Guthrie Theater)

It’s quite a leap for a bit of fairly rarified attribution studies to lead to a lavish staging of a piece of slash fanfic. But for Liz Duffy Adams, the arguments of the New Oxford Shakespeare that Marlowe and Shakespeare collaborated on the Henry VI plays were enough to prompt a new ninety-minute play, first staged at Texas’s Alley Theatre and then revived at the Guthrie in Minneapolis (just in time for Shakespeare Association of America attendees to catch the closing performances). Adams’s play enters a long tradition of Shakespearean biofiction, putting Will Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe in the back room of a bar together, where they write plays and negotiate their feelings for one another in the context of a totalitarian surveillance state. But while the premise had a great deal of promise, Rob Melrose’s production failed to compensate for the deficiencies of a script that couldn’t decide what kind of play it wanted to be.

Poster for Born with Teeth, featuring reversed images of Shakespeare and Marlowe, both with quills covering their eyes.
The Jacks of Quills

In a choice reminiscent of The Sandman, Adams’s play takes place in the same pub across three scenes spanning 1591 to 1593. Lord Strange has hired Shakespeare to work with Marlowe to put on a new pot-boiler telling the start of the Wars of the Roses. Will is initially star-struck by the charismatic Kit, but by the time they meet the following year to write Part 2, Shakespeare’s star is on the ascendancy and he’s taking more of a lead in the collaboration. By the short third scene, a final meeting just before Marlowe’s death, 3 Henry VI has been staged with almost nothing of Marlowe in it, and Shakespeare is preparing for stardom. The two men fall – sort of – in love with one another, but they are also being torn apart by the machinations of the warring political forces of Walter Raleigh, Robert Cecil, and the Earl of Essex, with playwrights forced to inform one one another in order to survive.

Michael Locher’s set – with a lavish scenic representation of a London street, and a large wooden table surrounded with chairs – tried to fill the large stage of the McGuire, but felt cavernous around Matthew Amendt’s Kit and Dylan Godwin’s Will, and this was part of the difficulty of a production that was trying in some ways to be paranoid conspiracy thriller – with Kit initially as the one making veiled threats (or warnings) to Will, but later finding himself wrong-footed as the naive Will started learning how to play the game – and in other ways to be an intimate relationship story. With the politics happening entirely off-stage, the emphasis of the actual drama was on the latter; but the reliance of the plot on the former led to interminable exposition. That is, this was a production in which two people spent a lot of time talking about much more interesting things happening elsewhere, and in which the larger surveillance culture of Elizabethan London never became a consistently tangible threat.

Instead, the play and production hinged on the ability of Amendt and Godwin to develop a complex, multi-faceted relationship between two men (Salieri and Mozart were a reference point in the program). As a queer love story, there was a lot here to enjoy, at least in theory. The relationship began as one-sided, with a brash, over-confident Kit dismissing the ‘boy’ Will (‘We’re the same age’, was the response. ‘Not in stage years’), but Kit gradually found himself won over by Will’s empathy for his characters even while interrogating Will about his Catholic connections. As the two fell in love – Kit realizing Will’s bisexuality – they started feeling one another out about future possibilities. Could Will abandon his wife? Could Kit leave the service of the spymasters? Could Will save himself by turning informant? The questions were powerful and rich, fulfilling a kind of fanfic wish-fulfilment (especially when they finally got to share a snog), but also building in plausible obstacles to root the emotional drama in yearning.

The problem with this was that the performances and script were just too broad. The production began with a fantasy sequence of Will and Kit hanging from chains, screaming while being tortured, before snapping to Will archly saying ‘Yeah, that never happened’. Will’s text and Godwin’s performance in the subsequent framing dialogue around the scenes that followed strongly echoed Johnny Depp’s performance of John Wilmot in The Libertine, a camp, self-justifying mutter as he wrestled with his own past. In the scenes, however, Godwin was more the wide-eyed ingenue, earnest and gauche, while Amendt’s Marlowe preened, leaning at obtuse angles against the table and reclining dandily against furniture, all while denouncing like Edward Alleyn. Particularly with so many built-in in-jokes (much of the script echoed the kinds of knowing reference typical of Upstart Crow), the play pushed towards parodic comedy to an extent that undermined the more serious brewing conflict. And by the time Shakespeare revealed in the final scene that he had betrayed Marlowe to Raleigh, the biofiction the play resembled most was none other than Anonymous; the final line (something like ‘You shouldn’t be surprised that the man who wrote Iago knew what it was to betray his friend’) was so inadvertently hilarious in its melodrama that it seemed a shame the production hadn’t been campier. But, torn in so many different tonal directions, the play never seemed to fully decide what kind of investment it had in its characters.

The most successful – but also the most problematic – through-line was the interrogation of different kinds of masking. Will at first seemed entirely smitten with Kit, looking at him with a wide smile and thrilled to be working with him, while the more confident Kit seemed fully in command of his own life. But what became apparent was that the openly gay Kit was also trapped. He was living his life to the full, and thus had nothing left to achieve; he was also, despite his spying, surprisingly candid about his feelings and actions. Will, despite professing sincerity, was much more guarded, and this became a source of fascination and fear for Kit, who felt unable to know Will, and thus was continually surprised by both him and by his writing. While this leant into pretty tired Bardolatrous stereotypes about Shakespeare surpassing Marlowe, the mapping of this onto sexual orientation was interesting. Kit swiped consciously at Will’s bisexuality, noting that Will’s ability to be more flexible – with his sexuality, as with his religious allegiances and with his writing – was what was going to allow him to survive, and this was the most consistent set of values interrogated by the production. The flipside of this set of connections was that they risked leaning into biphobia, as if Will’s ability to form attachments with people of multiple genders made him inherently untrustworthy, confirmed in his ultimate successful betrayal of the man he loved. While the play clearly wanted to be edgy in its breaking down of the Shakespeare myth (explicitly drawing attention to the idea that this Shakespeare was different from the one it assumed its audience believed in), the implications for its dismissive villainizing of more fluid kinds of sexual orientation felt unconsidered.

Notwithstanding, the production had some lovely moments of intimacy between the two men, and it was a thrill to see the Henry VI plays – dismissed even by the two men writing them – given serious attention. Suffolk and Margaret were evoked during the long second scene, the two authors’ rehearsal of their parting words becoming the vessel by which they articulated their own refusal to pursue a life together. The peppering of other Shakespeare quotations throughout – with Kit particularly anticipating Hamlet, culminating in a request to ‘remember me’ that suggests Hamlet would be this universe’s Will’s way of memorializing his lost love – wasn’t too heavy-handed. Somewhat clunkier were the discussions of Joan and Cade and their political allegiances and dramatic potential, scenes which felt like they were more about proving Shakespeare’s greater sophistication of thought and empathy than they were about developing a meaningful understanding of the characters. But throughout all of this, Amendt and Godwin developed a proximity to one another that, when they lost themselves in their writing, allowed them to come close to one another, Kit’s bravado and Will’s reserve giving way to the production’s best moments of touch and shared feeling.

While Born With Teeth felt under-developed, what the play did achieve was a sense of the fear of living within a repressive society. The discussion of ‘Tom’ being tortured (an under-developed thread), the introduction of plague masks (‘they’re meant to help avoid contagion), and the sense of marginalized people being made to turn on one another by a state apparatus so far removed as to be untouchable, all read as prescient concerns that offered the potential to use Marlowe and Shakespeare’s intersecting stories to illustrate contemporary struggles. But its tendency towards melodrama and a greater concern with Shakespearean mythos prevented it reaching its full potential (for which My Own Private Idaho offers a more satisfying model of Shakespearean histories being retooled for a contemporary story of queer love and betrayal). Born With Teeth, paradoxically, felt more toothless than the material deserved.

PERFORMANCE: Roxy’s Cabaret, Minneapolis

‘The name upon your lips is gonna be – Roxy’s!’ While the snow blanketed Minneapolis outside, Monica West played host to the brave few who ventured out through the cold (including a cohort from the Shakespeare Association of America) for a fabulous, inclusive, and gorgeously camp dinner performance. With one of the venue’s usual stars off doing a Schitt’s Creek cruise, this open-themed drag show was full of joy and creativity, some killer cover versions, and a lot of laughs.

Monica West shot from behind at a drag night
Come to the cabaret!

One of the real treats was the inclusion of Genevieve Love (not the Shakespeare scholar), who normally does tech for the venue, but here stepped into the spotlight to fill in for an absent regular. Love’s dynamic, energetic performance showed off her athleticism as she worked the floor, did the splits, and cartwheeled between the tables (while wearing those heels). Love’s immaculate outfits and confident lip-synch set the tone for the night, the 1s flowing in her direction from around the room.

Genevieve Love dancing on stage.
Genevieve Love works the floor.

The older (though still only twenty-six, of course) queens then took the stage. Bebe Zahara Benet – winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season one – was all presence, with a stately trio of sets framed by majestic visuals. The absolute stand-out here involved a shattering cover of Meredith Brooks’s ‘Bitch’ reimagined as a torch song. Bebe’s poise and control, working her costume and channelling every possible bit of triumphant defiance into her face, demonstrated just why she won that show way back when.

I’m a bitch.

For my money, though, Monica West had the best tunes. One set transitioned gloriously from ‘Material Girl’ into a jaunty, folksy reworking of ‘Bad Romance’, set to the bass line of ‘Hit the Road, Jack’. But a Joan Jett-themed climax, finishing with the room bouncing to ‘I Love Rock n’ Roll’, was an inspired choice to end the night.

In between, the banter was warm, the emphasis of this club being on its welcoming atmosphere. In a climate where drag is under particular attack from the conservative right, Monica – while never, of course, earnest – repeatedly returned to ideas of collective work and the mission of art. Her main ribbing was for a guy who shied away from tucking bills into her bra, and anyone from out in the Minnesota sticks came in for some good-natured education in the joys of running water and electricity. But the most fun was the back and forth between the bar staff, techs and queens, where the shared joy of putting together the show came to the fore. And even where there were technical testicle difficulties, the show never stopped.

Putting a show like this into words is well outside my field of expertise, and really this review is just a reminder to myself of the joy of the experience – from some extraordinarily substantial chicken wings, to the shared happiness and community in the room, to the amazing performances of the queens. But more than anything, for me, this introduction to drag was a potent reminder of just why this kind of performance is so threatening to cultural conservatives. As an unbridled expression of individual creativity, as a business which thrives on collectivism, and as an art so unashamed of the body, its emancipatory politics were profound. And they have the best tunes.

THEATRE: Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl (dir. JP Scheidler for Mary Baldwin University Undergraduate Theatre Department)

‘Small Mouth Sounds’ could be the sounds that come from a small mouth, or could be the small sounds that are made by the mouth. The smallness suggests the non-verbal, and the small sounds made by the cast of MBU Theatre Department’s production ranged from grunts to groans to sexual excitement to munching on gummi bears. Bess Wohl’s play is sparse with its words but dense with what isn’t being said, and JP Scheidler’s production found both the humour and the hurt in the moments where words were not allowed or were not enough.

Poster for Small Mouth Sounds
Gone camping

Six people gathered on stage, ready for a retreat. An offstage voice, the Teacher (Johnny Williams III at this performance) spoke uncomfortably closely into a microphone. At first, this voice sounded stilted, almost like a machine with a prepared script, but Williams’s disquieting, disembodied performance – all words with nothing else – acted as the counterpoint to a silent retreat where no-one was allowed to speak. The Teacher was, apparently, famous from podcasts and self-help books, and the various campers seemed reasonably excited (with some exceptions) to meet him. But this Teacher clearly had a lot going on, and as the weekend extended, the Teacher was interrupted by phone calls, distracted by his own anecdotes, and finally frustrated by the behaviour of the campers. Whatever words he had used to get everyone here, it was clear he was selling snake oil.

Yet the campers were exactly the kind of people who would lap this up. Wohl’s play is gently satirical about who this kind of retreat might appeal to. Middle-aged couple Joan (Claire Josefson) and Judy (Jovita Roselene) were one type. The smartly dressed Judy, confident but a little uptight, treated everything with a benign smile; we learned, later in the production, that she had been ill or recently diagnosed with something serious, and she seemed to be relatively peaceful about the whole thing. But she was deeply frustrated with the fussy, flighty Joan, who kept drawing focus to herself. Bedecked with shawls and many bags (Molly Seremet’s costume design helping instantly clarify who these characters were), Joan was a small source of chaos, the kind of person who makes noise and then makes even more noise while apologising for the first noise, and she also seemed to feel resentful towards Judy for how hard Judy’s illness had been on Joan. Josefson’s facial expressions suggested she was taking the Teacher’s words very ostentatiously seriously, but clearly she had no actual truck with it, while Judy – who often seemed quietly sceptical – at least listened.

The others had a range of stories. Quiet Jan (Austin Cox) seemed to have lost someone, and also seemed generally confused by everything happening around him (at the production’s end, it was revealed he couldn’t speak English, in the only real note of the play itself that rang false for me, structured as a ‘gotcha!’ joke, even if the production handled it sweetly). Rodney (John Capaldi) was a reasonably famous yoga teacher who Joan was ecstatic to see, and who drew attention to his own calm, but got increasingly frustrated at the Teacher’s failings. Alicia (Kensley Smith) was constantly on her phone, breaking the rules, and indifferent to the whole enterprise, but received some bad news on her phone partway through the retreat which opened her up (her bad news arrived at the same time as the Teacher’s revelation of sickness in his own family distracting him, and I was unclear if there was meant to be a causal connection there). And Ned (Walter Pultz) was a troubled young man who had the longest monologue of the whole thing, listing the litany of horrific things that had happened to him to lead him to this point. All of these people were vulnerable in different ways, even if they didn’t necessarily realise it, and it felt like all had been brought to something incapable of giving them what they needed.

And so, in silence, the participants slept in tents, ate, attended seminars (during which Williams span eclectic stories, always very funnily, but with a creepy, cloying control), and interacted with one another. Most had some kind of revelation or worked something through: Joan and Judy broke up and Joan left, only to return to patch things up; meanwhile, Judy and Jan shared a spliff and some Cheetos. Ned tried to reach out to Alicia while she was upset, but was rejected; she then, in her sadness, went and had sex with Rodney. The experience of existing in silence was more than some could bear; neither Joan nor Alicia were ready for it, and were constantly distracted, partly because they were no longer the centre of attention. It was Judy and Jan who were able to be still, to embrace the silence, and Judy’s defiant withdrawal combined well with Jan’s simple kindness. Meanwhile, the somewhat douchey Rodney unravelled in his frustration, while the messy Ned seemed to find himself again as a result of making tentative connections with Alicia.

The most interesting thing about the production was the exploration of characters’ ability to say what they needed to say without using words. With the tents emerging from a pattern of drapes in Scheidler’s scenic design, lit beautifully with changing states by Williams III and occasionally supported by Talford Hayden’s background projections, the environment provided a backdrop for reworking how one communicates. Those who could embrace the environment – such as Alicia, when she tried to leave a message for the Teacher but instead simply held up her phone to the stars, or Judy as she sat quietly with her spliff – found that words were more or less immaterial; Jan, for whom words in this English-speaking context were largely immaterial, was also well-acclimated. But those unable to let their normal lives go – the shallow Joan, and Rodney who seemed to be in denial about his marriage – found themselves stifled by the self-consciousness that a lack of words put upon them. The play, and this production, are a reminder that small mouth sounds are in fact large in what they signify – because those are the sounds that make up the words, and if those sounds are not right within their environment, then no words will ever be sufficient.

THEATRE: Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl (dir. Nana Dakin for the American Shakespeare Center)

The play may be called Eurydice, but it was Orpheus who broke my heart. In a thoughtful use of the Blackfriars Playhouse, Tophey Embrey’s bereaved musician roamed the upper gallery while his deceased wife descended to the Underworld of the main stage. Orpheus sang songs, wrote letters, called an operator to find out where Eurydice was (‘No, I don’t know the city’). I was watching this on my wedding anniversary while my wife was an ocean and several time zones away, and what I heard in Embrey’s voice was the weight of separation and loss, the quaver in the plea for a connection, the loneliness of someone who is used to duetting learning what he sounds like solo (see also: Inside Llewyn Davis). Orpheus yearned for what was lost, and this stone cried for him.

A woman with an umbrella and suitcase stands on a stage; three women wearing eclectic clothes look at her.
Eurydice arrives in the underworld to be met by the Stones. Photo: Amy Wolf.

Sarah Ruhl’s 2003 play imagines Orpheus and Eurydice in the continuous present, having lived together for centuries, their life mythical yet contemporary. Eurydice flees her wedding day to take a break, and meets an Interesting Man who claims to have a letter from her dead father; when she goes to his penthouse apartment and then flees his advances on her, though, she falls to her death and arrives in the Underworld, where she reconnects with her father. But when Orpheus arrives to retrieve her, Eurydice is torn over leaving her father once more. As one of the Stones who acts as chorus to her tragedy tells her, to mourn twice is excessive.

The classical myth thus becomes an abstracted and often comic reflection on grief, and the American Shakespeare Center ensemble – so adept in comedy, as in their concurrent production of As You Like It – embraced both the hilarious and the devastating elements of Ruhl’s work. In one case, that of Annabelle Rollison as the Father, the comed y and the grief were so intertwined as to be inseparable. The Father remembers, in a way that the dead are not supposed to, but memory is a curse as much as a blessing. Rollison’s face betrayed tears as the Father remembered Eurydice, tried to send messages to her, danced alone in mimicry of Orpheus and Eurydice’s wedding dance, and walked an absent daughter down the wedding aisle. Rollison’s skill as a comedian allowed her to play up the awkward timing and deadpan small talk that characterized the Father, but without sacrificing the innate sadness of a man looking for connection, even as he knew what that connection would mean for his daughter. In particular, when Eurydice first arrived in the Underworld without her memories, the Father’s willing adoption of the character of a porter, just so he could be close to Eurydice while she demanded to be taken to her room, was both funny in the impersonation, and desperately sad in Rollison’s capturing of what it mean to be so near, yet so far.

The classical myth leaves Eurydice a more-than-usually passive heroine; following her death, she is deprived of voice, and Orpheus’s rescue of her depends on her invisibility and silence. Ruhl gives Eurydice a voice, but that voice articulates an ambivalence about the world, for Eurydice is grieving her father while marrying her lover, and is emotionally torn. Kayla Carter’s performance insisted on finding independence away from Embrey’s Orpheus; the much larger Embrey physically dominated her, and in their first sequence together, clad in bathing suits, he controlled her sight as he revealed to her the seaside he had brought her to. But the wedding party was too much for her – especially as Orpheus had left her to welcome their guests – and it was revealing that, on their wedding day, she was already seeking her own space. Orpheus didn’t respect her love of books, and the appearance of an Interesting Man (Michael Manocchio) who – for all of his self-interest and disregard for her consent – offered her something she wanted, in the shape of a connection to her father, made clear that her personality could not be entirely defined by Orpheus. And this is where Ruhl’s play becomes such a potent allegory for the experience of grief: Eurydice was expected to behave in certain ways by everyone she encountered, but everyone’s expectations were conditioned by what worked for them.

The three Stones who served as the Underworld’s Chorus (Summer England, Kenzie Ross, Constance Swain) were only interested in maintaining the rules of the Underworld. While they could be moved – Orpheus had moved them to tears with his singing – their role was to insist on fixity. For this reason, they were scathing of the Father, as something of a subversive element. The Stones rolled, and clambered around the Playhouse, and piled upon one another, watching over the Underworld for their master (Manocchio), a petulant child-shaped figure who rode a tiny bike and insisted that Eurydice take him as a lover. Where Orpheus couldn’t let go of his lost wife, and tried to remake the world to put her back in the place he needed her to be, the Stones refused to allow Eurydice to grow and develop as she recovered her memories in the Underworld, and the Child only cared about placing Eurydice within his own structured world. The Father was the only one who not only took Eurydice as she was, but who subsumed his own needs to serve her interests. After her memories were lost, he kindly and patiently took time with her – reintroducing her to the books she had loved while alive (Shakespeare!), reminding her of names and histories, and literally building her a space which could be hers and in which she could rebuild herself.

The play’s tragedy came from Eurydice being torn in too many directions. Nana Dakin’s direction used the Playhouse beautifully to create a sense of near-constant movement: the Stones processing around the stage (with some fabulous choreography from England creating unusual gestures, and an uncanny march in which hands slapped feet as they were raised to head height); Orpheus wandering in circles around the upper gallery. But whereas in the classical myth, it is Orpheus who turns around because he can’t bear Eurydice’s silence; here it was Eurydice calling out Orpheus’s name and distracting him that returns her to the Underworld, a return she embraced for, having had the chance to rekindle her relationship with her dead father, she was already once more at home there. But the Father, bereft with a second loss of Eurydice, had asked to be dunked once more in Lethe’s waters, represented by a long blue sheet on the stage in the shape of a river, which the Stones helped the Father raise over his head. The play’s various griefs – Orpheus for Eurydice, the Father for Eurydice, Eurydice for the Father – all coalesced in the desire to forget, a desire that killed pain but also killed the self. That is, this production understood, our grief for those we love is also what keeps both them and us alive. In this, Rollison and Carter’s performances as they both embraced the waters of forgetfulness, ending their own pain of loss, cut through the gentle comedy of a play with funny talking Stones and a macabre, absurd Child Hades, were significantly dead straight. The quiet solidarity shown by the Stones, who stopped snarking and who shared the weight of the river with those who sought oblivion, allowed both the Father and Eurydice dignity as they made their choices and committed to the fullness of death; and the belated entry of Orpheus, now himself dead, stressed the inevitability of this choice. But the ASC never saw Ruhl’s play as about denying or fighting death; instead, the company played out the ache of grief and the acceptance of loss and separation – a separation all the more profound in a theatre space known for making connections. And as the lights went out – a profound act in a theatre where the lights always stay on – the production accepted, and welcomed, the inevitable.

THEATRE: Romeo and Julie by Gary Owen (dir. Rachel O’Riordan for the National Theatre)

While almost any new play or film featuring two lovers kept apart by external forces risks being associated with Romeo and Juliet, it’s rare that one signals the connection in its title as boldly as Gary Owen’s Romeo and Julie. What’s more surprising is that the connections between Shakespeare and this play are so loose that the title actually does Owen’s play something of a disservice. Yes, there are two young people meeting and falling in love, and the girl’s dad lays down some ultimatums for her. Julie’s stepmother is a nurse; Romeo has a very serious ex. But to look for the potentially Shakespearean references is to miss the very specific story being told about class, education, young parenthood, and social mobility in contemporary Wales – and the impossibility of having it all.

A group of people and a pram move about a stage.
Battleship Potemkin without the steps. Photo: Marc Brenner

Romy (Callum Scott Howells) lives with his alcoholic mum Barb (Catrin Aaron) and his newborn baby, Niamh. When we first see him, he’s dealing with what Barb describes as a ‘gale force poo-nami’, and Barb tries to persuade him to give up the baby for fostering, telling him he can’t deal with it. He can’t bring himself to do it, though, and commits himself to single parenting, while Barb refuses to help. But some time later, he meets Julie (Rosie Sheehy) in the library. She’s hoping to read physics at Cambridge, and to be the first person in her family to go to university; she sees an opportunity to do her community service and improve her Cambridge personal statement by helping this working-class single-dad (‘It doesn’t get more community than you’). And quickly, they fall in love, but their lives are already going in different directions.

Rachel O’Riordan’s direction of the premiere in the Lyttleton Theatre struck the classic tone for so much twenty-first-century new writing. All the actors remained on stage for the duration on plastic chairs; physical transitions set to pounding beats, bass lines, and flashing lights saw the actors dance into the next snapshot after a brief passage of time. The chairs and table were upended to become seaside debris or doorframes; neon tubes in abstracts shapes lit up to create patterns in the sky that may or may not have represented the Milky Way that Julie was so keen for Romy to see (and which became emblematic of a future that he was unable to). Within this, though, performances were naturalistic, even diffident. In the community of Splott – a particularly deprived post-industrial area of Cardiff whose relative poverty has been emphasised more by the gentrification of other areas of the Welsh capital – there was no glamour, no grandstanding, and often no hope. The spartan, recycled set reflected the plain clothes, brusque or listless demeanours, and shrugged-away grumblings of the area’s inhabitants.

The play’s, and production’s, concerns were with social inequality. The essay portions of the play represented the weakest bits of writing: Barb and Julie’s stepmother Kath (Anita Reynolds) comparing the Welsh-medium comprehensive to which Julie goes with Barb’s sense that Romy was too thick to benefit; several scenes across which Julie explained to Romy that Cardiff wasn’t as good a university as Cambridge; the explanations of systems and barriers were information-dense and full of cliches, such as Julie describing the posh girl she met at a Cambridge interview who walked out of the room as soon as she heard she’d been to a comp. The conflict that emerged from these positions, though, was important. Julie quickly became pregnant (the clever girl being rebranded as ‘stupid’ by her father, Paul Brennen’s Col, and Kath), and decided to settle for her two-Cs insurance offer of Cardiff, deferring her place for a year so that she could start a family with Romy. Julie’s parents kicked her out as a result, and she went to live with Barb and Romy; when Romy found out what she was throwing away by not going to Cambridge, though, he dumped her, as a result of which she had an abortion. This play’s titular lovers did not die, but their idea of their life together did; closing on a reconciliation, Romy told Julie to ‘go. / And be brilliant / For all of us’. Julie’s potential to have a different life not defined by teen motherhood and under-achievement (on society’s terms) became a proxy for the possibility of change on a larger scale.

Social mobility dramas often struggle to avoid implicitly validating the idea that some communities do need to be escaped from, and for all of the love that this play and production had for Splott, I had that feeling here. Splott was characterized as fundamentally without hope: Barb drinking herself into destruction, Col coughing and spluttering as an effect of the steelworks where he’s been putting in the hours to fund Julie’s escape to university, Kath explaining (in another awkward set-piece that felt cut from a talking heads documentary) about the vanishingly small amount of time she was paid to be with the clients she gets up and puts to bed at night, and about having to give them companionship on her own time. In the absence of any characters outside this immediate family circle, or depictions of a life not defined entirely by work, the escape to Cambridge was aligned with Julie’s obsession with the starry night sky. The play’s clear stance was that Julie does need to escape, as the economic ravages of a capitalist system that depends on the existence of the poor in order to make being rich meaningful had left no other option for her. Julie, in Sheehy’s most earnest scene, wanted to be allowed to make her own choices, and to choose a family and a degree from a less prestigious university (if there was one thing which rang false about the whole thing, it’s that Cardiff is a Russell Group university and 18th in the country for Physics; the way the play spoke about it as if it’s a shit university when it is one of a self-selected, self-defining elite seemed weirdly snobbish) if that’s what she wanted – but her family and boyfriend took that choice away from her.

Julie’s pleading for choice was core to what made this such a powerful bit of theatre, rather than the writing. Sheehy and Howells were sensational, with electric chemistry that had audible parts of the audience gasping and whooping as they finally kissed. Romy was good-natured and wide-eyed, with lurching movements communicating the tiredness of looking after Niamh. The initial physical comedy of his disgust at dealing with a heavily beshitted set of nappies and baby clothes – holding everything at arm’s length – developed into a physical comfort with both baby and Julie; he was never at peace so much when holding his daughter. But he was also a scared young man, quick to become defensive at the first sign of being left, and while he was never aggressive, he showed resistance to allowing himself to become emotionally vulnerable that only Julie could break down. Sheehy, on the other hand, was lively, sarcastic, cheeky and confident. She barreled into Romy’s life with a smile and some gentle disdain for the school drop-out, but as he showed her how to look after his daughter, she slowly softened, drawn in by the commitment and love he showed, which developed empathy in her as she stopped thinking about herself as an individual and started imagining herself within a unit. Romy always represented a constant; the change here was all around Julie as her priorities changed, as she started demanding different things from her parents, and as she channelled her self-confidence into becoming resilient as she prepared to be a young mum herself.

The strength of Romeo and Julie‘s play-text is the navigation of complex emotions. None of the characters in this production were one-dimensional. Col may have taken a strong and deeply unreasonable position by throwing Julie out after learning she was pregnant, but Brennen’s performance made clear the strain of his decades of work and his profound sense of despair about his daughter’s future. Kath was, for much of the production, set up as the antagonist, the brusque stepmother inclined to aggression and cruel words towards her daughter, but whose toughness had been socially conditioned (the best part of her monologue about working conditions was the sense that, in having to channel herself into giving her patients the care they needed, she had ever less left over for herself and for her own family). Aaron’s drunken, selfish Barb had obvious problems, but her straight-talking and love for her son made sense of how far Romy was willing to mitigate and apologise for her binges. And while Romy’s abrupt dumping of Julie to force her to choose university was the only jarring note in terms of the script’s pacing, Sheehy and Howells never let the love that their characters felt for one another detract from their individual personalities, and never allowed their individual characters to become inflexible in relation to one another. Romy and Julie’s whole relationship was defined by negotiation; even at the heights of getting together, they would be tired or distracted; even when fighting, they still cared desperately about one another. The maturity that Owen scripted for, and which Howell and Sheehy brought to, these teenage lovers was the most respectful and powerful element of this production.

Romeo and Julie didn’t provide any solutions, and the separation of Romy and Julie at the play’s end felt deeply conditional. But as Julie said, ‘You have to believe I’m coming back / Or I can’t leave you’. Ahead of a massive life-change, what Romeo and Julie put its faith in was people: that while a deeply inequitable society might force people to choose between different lives, offering only the possibility of escape and individual betterment rather than of structural reform and redistribution of resource, people might be able to work against that, through belief. Julie’s strength of will, her resistance to people telling her what she could or could not do, her ability to find creative solutions and compromises, may have resulted in pushback from everyone around her. But right up to the end of the play, she continued to refuse to accept the script that had been written for her, holding tightly onto Romy and onto the love she’d developed for him and for Niamh (the most crushing bit of dialogue was Romy telling Julie that she couldn’t come back and see them every holiday, because Niamh would have to lose her again every time she left). This play ended not with a promised statue of two dead lovers, but with a living tableau of two young people leaving open the possibility that this may work out if they both want it enough – and that was the space of hope that Owen and O’Riordan left open for societal change.