(l to r) Charlie Aleman and Briana Sakamoto in Hypokrit Theatre Company/Access Theater’s ‘R + J.’ (Photo: Hunter Canning)
Is this Shakespeare, or Switchblade Sisters? One would be excused for the confusion in the opening scenes of Hypokrit Theatre Company and Access Theater’s staging of a female, genderqueer rendition of R + J. Brandishing a knife nearly as sharp as her cheekbones, Tsebiyah Mishael as Tybalt opens the action on the Bard’s most famous tragedy by facing off with a soldier from the Montague clan after hurling a foul gesture her way, saying, “I serve as good a woman as you.” A thrilling fight scene ensues.
This dystopian romance is set in a not-too-distant future purged of cisgender men. Molly Houlahan’s adaptation is set 50 years past the extermination of the male sex, but martial law still reigns. The Capulets, controllers of the media, fight for dominance against the sovereign state with fists, knives and guns. When the young scion of the warring Montague clan falls for the Capulet’s fairest daughter, no good can come of it.
At 19, Juliet (Briana Sakamoto) is just old enough to have been betrothed to the well-bred Paris (Ania Upstill) when she spots lanky Romeo (Charlie Aleman) interloping at her family’s masquerade party. Dressed in goth black with a forelock of lavender hair, Juliet seems the polar opposite of the camo-clad Montague heir, but the two fall in love even before Juliet learns, “Their name is Romeo, and a Montague; the only child of your great enemy.”
The love scenes the pairs share are joyful, but the best exchange comes after angry Tybalt stabs Mercutio, and a savage Romeo chokes the life out of her in revenge. When Juliet discovers her new love has slain her cousin and is to be exiled for the crime, she rails “as if that name shot from the deadly level of a gun did murder her, as that name’s cursed hands murdered her kinswoman.”
Juliet wails and smacks Romeo’s face, then they kiss despite herself. The audience gets a bit of gratuitous but not unwelcome nudity in their tender love scene. Juliet vows that despite the murder of her kinswoman and her lover’s subsequent banishment, despite her promise to Paris, she “will not marry yet, and when I do I swear, it shall be Romeo, whom you know I hate, rather than Paris.”
The action becomes intimate in this 50-seat theatre in the round, almost to the point of being immersive as characters hop onto platforms located behind the rows of seats to present their lines. The pacing of this two-hour and twenty-minute production is mercifully fleet, and the cast of six actors do a wonderful job with their multiple roles, with standout performances from Ania Upstill as a saucy Mercutio and Jillian Geurts as a bold Lady Montague.
Big kudos go to the innovative costume design by Lux Haac, with Wardrobe Supervisor Bonnie Puk. Flourishes such as Tybalt’s silver epaulets, Mercutio’s bomber jacket with its hot-pink fur collar, and the Sovereign’s emerald green catsuit with a split cape are futuristic and elegant, and the Montague’s embellished army surplus gear drives home the era of martial law at work.
Houlihan intended the play to examine what happens when a new society holds onto the patriarchal structures of the past, relying on the same old systems of power, money and love. But despite her effort to explore mainstream feminism and those in danger of being left behind in its wake, Houlihan’s lovers end up in the selfsame tomb as did Shakespeare’s star-crossed fools more than four centuries ago, begging the question, “War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”
R + J
380 Broadway at White St., NYC
Through October 14