Taffety Punk Theatre Company sure has guts. The marketing for their all-female “answer” to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s all-male production of Romeo & Juliet had me instantly intrigued: “An hour shorter, a fraction of the cost, and 100% more women. We will totally crush them!” Really, with that kind of chutzpah shown by director Lise Bruneau, how could I not go? And only $10 bucks!
I wasn’t disappointed.
This is a very stripped down production that manages within limited budget and extremely tight space constraints to hit most of the passion points of the play. It’s like watching “The Outsiders” do Shakespeare, using very contemporary speech patterns and body language that help to freshly illuminate the text.
Two outstanding performances in this vein are Rahaleh Nassri as Romeo and Kimberly Gilbert as Mercutio. I swear every time Nassri came on, I thought I heard Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Possess Your Heart” – so perfectly did she embody that particular style of hipster boy the girls have a crush on. Oh, he may start out as a bit of a player, but once he’s hooked he’s yours forever. It’s a brilliant bit of naturalistic acting and she’s completely believable as a lovestruck teen. Kimberly Gilbert’s Mercutio is a different take on a role that so often gets played as world-weary and wiser than Romeo, not to mention slightly fey and crazy – here, he’s that hotheaded best friend you start to outgrow, who’s always playing tough and talking trash but when the fight actually starts he is totally out of his league.
The entire ensemble cast is committed and focused, with great physical energy for the fights and crisp vocality throughout. Though I may not have agreed with some of the character choices, every choice was clearly made, and that’s definitely to be applauded. It’s well paced and speeds by – they could even have cut more.
Sightlines are a bit of a pain in the Capital Arts Workshop’s “black box.” It’s a forced theatrical space that really limits staging. It was difficult to ascertain if some of the more awkwardly blocked scenes were simply the result of the space itself. Issues with the set design follow along the same lines – it’s a tricky space, and the sparse jungle gym look works well for some scenes and impedes others. It’s a pity they didn’t use any sound design at all, as that could have punched up the hip contemporary feel. Props are a problem too, with awkward rapiers, daggers, and a clunky cafeteria table for the tomb’s altar, all managing to pull focus and kill the mood. In such a rigid space with budget constraints, less is more, and it might have been better to streamline and monochrome costumes and props more so that they don’t draw attention at all.
But these are really minor issues when you consider that the focus of Taffety Punk’s production is obviously not to showcase design or directorial choices – it’s about giving an ensemble of very talented actors (dare I say actresses?) a stage on which to prove their worth, and they take advantage of every minute. It’s a joy to watch them.
Basically, all the major problems I had with Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Romeo & Juliet” and the minor issues I have with Taffety Punk’s version could be solved by some strategic cross-pollination. Give some of STC’s cash to Taffety Punk, and some of Taffety Punk’s passion to STC, and there you have it, the perfect production! That it just never seems to work that way in theatre is one of the reasons I became disillusioned as a young artist and went on a long sabbatical. But as far as what I want to spend my money on, passion trumps cash every time. I’ll definitely check out the next Taffety Punk production, with no hesitation.
Taffety Punk Theatre Company
“The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedie, of Romeo and Juliet”
October 2, 3, & 4 at 7:30pm (also matinee at 3pm Oct 4)
Capitol Hill Arts Workshop
545 7th Street SE
Washington, DC 20003