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Janus version of ‘Romeo & Juliet’ is all-female

By Annie Alleman for Sun-Times Media

 10/30/09

When producing director Sean Hargadon with the Janus Theatre in Elgin announced auditions for “Romeo and Juliet,” he had 40 actors show up.

More than 30 of them were women. And most of them were quite talented.

So Hargadon had a conundrum — he had a classic, male-dominated play — in Shakespeare’s day, women weren’t allowed on stage — and he was staring at a stack of women’s headshots.

His solution? Cast an all-female version of “Romeo and Juliet.” The production opened Oct. 23 at the Elgin Art Showcase on the eighth floor of the Professional Building, and enjoying standing ovations its opening weekend.

The thing he’s found most surprising, he said, is how well it’s all working out.

Once the physical things were fixed — gestures, movements, voice — “I didn’t notice the difference at all,” he said. “Women playing men didn’t bother me. I was moved. They’re good actors working on their parts, telling a story. There’s nothing strange or weird about it, to be honest. It’s a matter of selling the audience and getting them excited about it.”

This modern-dress production is about relationships, and the way the characters interact with each other. The actors are so good, he said, you don’t notice that they’re women.

“The relationships are strong, and you believe in what’s going on around you,” he said. “It surprised me in a good way; I thought it would be a struggle. The basic premise worked a lot better than I thought it would. We were in uncharted territory.”

The women embraced the idea. They recognized it might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he said. The women who play Romeo and Mercutio get the chance to sword-fight.

“There’s not a lot of opportunity for women to fight each other with real knives, and we’re doing the real thing,” he said. “Everyone was very much into the experience.”

When Hargadon got the idea to cast all women, he didn’t even bring them back in to read for the parts.

“I said, ‘We have a change of plans,'” and he brought in the ones he had in mind for each male role.

“It’s been a great, wonderful experience. I’m very proud of the company, very proud of the show,” he said. “Jen (Short) is one of the best Romeos I’ve ever seen.”

“Modern young men have a hard time being romantic,” he said. “It’s easier to fight and be hip than it is to be vulnerable onstage.”

Other area actresses in the play include: Audrey Flegel of Elgin as Juliet, Sarafina Vecchio of Elgin as Lord Capulet, Jacqueline Davies of Chicago as Lady Capulet, Angela Bend of St. Charles as Mercutio/Paris, Valerie Heckman of Elgin as Benvolio, Patricia True of Oak Park as the Nurse, Catie Early of East Dundee as Tybalt, Diane McFarlin of Sugar Grove as Friar Lawrence, Lori Holm of Batavia as Escalus/Apothecary, and Bylthe Gilio of Carol Stream as Balthasar.

He doesn’t know if he’ll perform any more of Shakespeare’s plays using women, not wanting to repeat himself, but it is “definitely liberating” knowing he wasn’t limited by casting in this production.

“The biggest thing is going to be getting the audience to try it out,” he said. “I hope people check it out. It’s an opportunity to see a great play reinterpreted. I think it’s worth the time to check it out and see an old play done in a new way.”

Hargadon adapted the script himself, and trimmed it so it runs less than two hours with intermission.

“We want to keep the audience wanting more rather than have them looking at their watches,” he said.

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All-female cast takes on modern-day ‘Romeo and Juliet’

By Scott C. Morgan | Daily Herald Staff

10/28/09

Romeo & Juliet

Janus Theatre Company’s all-female production of “Romeo and Juliet” is sure to raise a few eyebrows. Just seeing two women embracing in the title roles might make some people assume that Janus is trying to turn Shakespeare’s classic romantic tragedy into some kind of lesbian drama.

But that’s not the intent of Janus director and adapter Sean Hargadon. Janus’ all-female “Romeo and Juliet” was borne out of logistical and artistic practicalities.

Hargadon admits that far more women than men auditioned for Janus’ production. In light of that, Hargadon decided that casting the play entirely of one gender was a logical rethinking of historical Shakespearean performance practice when only men were allowed to appear on stages in Elizabethan England.

It’s also a nice touch of gender parity, especially since some modern companies occasionally cast all men for Shakespeare. (In the past five years, two European all-male productions of “Twelfth Night” toured to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.) And looking over the cast listings of Shakespeare plays, you’ll notice that most don’t have more than four female characters.

There’s a lot of great work in Janus’ sleek and streamlined “Romeo and Juliet.” But there are nagging elements that make you feel that the production isn’t fully living up to its artistic or theatrical potential.

Hargadon resets “Romeo and Juliet” in the modern day. The sparring Montague and Capulet clans dress largely in fashionable blacks and grays (courtesy of costumer Kate Collins), giving the suggestion that they’re rival mafia families given to occasional violent knife fights (laid out well by fight choreographer John Tovar).

Things are kept simple scenically, with only a few black tables and an elevated platform for Juliet’s balcony. This sparseness allows the performers to shine as they deliver the Bard’s glorious (if heavily edited) dialogue (lighting designer Andy Murshel helps to illuminate things symbolically with extra reds whenever a character is killed).

If the look is stark and defined, the acting turns out to be more of a mixed bag.

As Romeo, Jen Short gets the love-struck young man down right, complete with boyish enthusiasm and cropped hair. Short is convincing as Romeo first pines for the chaste Rosaline before he catches sight of Audrey Flegel’s Juliet at a Capulet family dance rave.

Flegel isn’t quite as effective in displaying Juliet’s initial naiveté, but is much more comfortable at showing her in crisis mode and contemplating life-and-death decisions (particularly with the deathly sleep potion).

Playing nicely against Flegel is Patricia True’s endearing Nurse. True brightens up every scene she’s in as a fashionably worldly-wise woman who loves Juliet as much as her designer labels.

The rest of the cast doesn’t show as much depth in their roles, and a good many don’t make for convincing men (except perhaps Catie Early as the fiery Tybalt). It’s hard to visually buy the women as men, particularly if they’re not willing to sacrifice their long ponytail tresses or to bind their apparent breasts.

Hargadon’s doubling up of the actors in multiple roles also has mixed results. Lori Holm shows an effective range between her drug junkie take on the Apothecary and the magisterial Prince Escalus. Less effective is Angela Bend’s doubling as Romeo’s ribald friend Mercutio and the eager-to-marry Paris (largely because they look too much alike).

Hargadon’s editing of the text is also choppy at times (particularly the opening fight which unexpectedly halts before the Prince’s appearance is divided up into a second scene).

But what makes Janus Theatre’s modern and all-female take on “Romeo and Juliet” feel a bit like a missed opportunity is Hargadon’s sidestepping of current gender politics and issues of sexual orientation. Since the show already changed with an all-female cast and modern setting, would having Diane McFarlin play Friar Lawrence as a woman be that much of a stretch if they switched religions from Catholic to Episcopalian?

At the very least, Janus Theatre should be commended for being daring enough to produce a Shakespearean classic with such nontraditional approaches. It’s just things could have been explored even further than they are here.

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Steadstyle Chicago
October 2009 Theatre Review
by Joe Stead

10/24/09

Romeo and Juliet

Chicago’s latest gang inflicted homicide has brought another grim reminder of the devastating effects of hatred and feuding.  And just as another innocent life was taken by a gunman’s bullet, so were William Shakespeare’s tragic young lovers cut down by their families’ hatred and violence, proving once again the timeless connection of the centuries old tale.  The central concept of Janus Theatre Company’s thrilling and deeply moving account of “Romeo and Juliet” is that all the roles are being performed by a company of women. 

There’s solid historical support for such casting, going back all the way to the original production in which teenage boys enacted all the female roles.  Women were forbidden from appearing on stage, which was considered a less than honorable occupation.  Once that law was changed women freely took roles both male and female throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries.  Some of us remember the outstanding all-male Apple Tree production known as “R&J” that also played the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, as well as acclaimed all-female troupes such as Footsteps and Babes With Blades that have taken on Shakespeare’s work.

Not that Director Sean Hargadon really needed any historical justification here as his extremely fine company puts to shame several of the traditional versions of this play I have seen in recent years.  The play begins in full fight in the darkness with Capulets and Montagues squaring off in an uncivil brawl that had one audience member thinking “cat fight”.  Gender soon becomes a non-issue though.  Love is love after all, and any homoerotic undertones that may exist in having two members of the same sex acting out Shakespeare’s steamy tale of star crossed lovers simply adds to the danger and thrill of this classic. 

Jen Short is an intoxicating Romeo, fairly bursting with rapturous joy at the wonders of first love.  Ms. Short’s expressions and sensitivity are really wonderful to watch.  She would be a welcome asset to any professional Chicago stage.  Audrey Flegel’s Juliet grows from an awkward child to a woman fighting for her very life and soul as the tragic forces play out.  In what must surely be one of the most memorable supporting character studies I have ever seen in a Shakespeare performance, Patricia True nearly walks away with the show in the role of the Nurse.  True’s laser-like timing and line deliveries were so instinctive and in the moment it was almost as if she were improvising the role on the spot.  She provided the much needed laughs to contrast the darker tragedy.  Truly masterful work!

Angela Bend is a fierce and animated Mercutio and her fight scenes with Catie Early as Tybalt are excitingly staged by John Tovar.  Choreographer Konnie Kay gives the Capulet’s ball a surprising and entertaining modern dance spin.  Jimmy Lundstrom’s sound design compliments and heightens the dramatic moments and is well chosen.  And Lori Holm clearly and touchingly intones the play’s prologue, which has been moved to the final epilogue.  Director Hargadon has made amazingly good and inventive use of a small promenade space.  It is minimalist and powerful as director and cast finesse the text for all it’s worth.  Anyone who appreciates an up close and personal approach to one of the greatest plays ever written would be advised to make the trip to Elgin for Janus Theatre Company’s captivating production of “Romeo and Juliet”.

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Where the boys aren’t: All-female cast takes shot at ‘Romeo & Juliet’
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Staff

10/21/09

As director Sean Hargadon surveyed the crop of actors auditioning for his Janus Theatre Co. production of “Romeo & Juliet,” he might have thought, “Wherefore art thou, dudes?”

“We had 40 people audition for the play, and over 30 women and not a lot of men, which is pretty normal,” Hargadon says of the Elgin production. While another director might have considered the lack of male actors a problem, Hargadon’s philosophy was to look on that adversity as sweet milk.

“Initially, I thought we could cast some women in male roles, but I had a really good cast of women come out,” the director says. So he decided to put a spin on the all-male casts of Shakespeare’s day, and stage his production with an all-female cast.

“So far it’s proved to be really fruitful,” Hargadon says. “With the classics you have to reinterpret, re-imagine them for a modern audience. Certain parts of the play that have become cliché over the years have new meaning now.”

Looking at the classic story of the forbidden and doomed love between teens of two feuding families, “there’s a lot of danger in there,” Hargadon says.

Having a woman play the role of Romeo might help the audience feel that tension, the director says. But he predicts the audience, as did his cast, will soon be swept into the performance and forget about genders.

“We’re not saying Juliet is in love with a woman,” explains Audrey Flegel, 27, who grew up in Elgin, got a degree at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, teaches at Second City and plays the part of Juliet. “Romeo is still a man, just being played by a woman.”

Chicagoan Jen Short “brings a great sensitivity to Romeo,” Hargadon says.

“It really hasn’t been a challenge,” says Flegel, who notes actors know how to pretend to be in love. “I don’t think, ‘Oh, this is a girl.’ This is the person I’m in love with. It doesn’t bother me or get in my way.”

Whether she’s Belle falling in love with the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast,” or any female lead falling in love with any male character, Flegel says the people on stage don’t have to be attracted to each other.

“They’re professionals,” Hargadon says.

At one of the first rehearsals, Flegel says she leaned over to Short and said, “Romeo, give me a kiss.”

“So she gave me a smooch real quick just so we could get used to it,” Flegel says, adding that she thinks “having two women play it really pulls out the deep friendship” between Romeo and Juliet, who are “more than just lovers.”

Besides, Flegel says, when Juliet and Romeo share a romantic moment, “I have my own personal Romeo in my mind.”

Other members of the cast and crew are Sarafina Vecchio (Elgin native) as Lord Capulet, Jacqueline Davies (Chicago) as Lady Capulet, Angela Bend (St. Charles) as Mercutio/Paris, Valerie Heckman (Elgin) as Benvolio, Patricia True (Oak Park) as the Nurse, Catie Early (East Dundee) as Tybalt, Diane McFarlin (Sugar Grove) as Friar Lawrence, Lori Holm (Batavia) as Escalus/Apothocary, and Bylthe Gilio (Carol Stream) as Balthasar/ensemble.

“What this does is give it a new look,” director Hargadon says of the all-female production. He predicts the audience will focus on the story and forget about the gender of the actors.

Or, as Shakespeare once noted, “The play’s the thing.”

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