Ampersand: A Romeo & Juliet Story (written by Mariah MacCarthy, directed by Amanda Thompson) is just that … “A” Romeo & Juliet story – not a 100% faithful retelling of THE Romeo and Juliet story. First of all, Romeo and Juliet are both women. So, right away, by making this a gender-issue play and bringing in questions of Juliet’s orientation – questions she must ask herself as much as we the audience must ask of the play – an entirely different layer is added to this tale which is deeper and more complex. And since this layer is deeper and complex, so is the love story. There’s an urgency that doesn’t -can’t- exist in a heterosexual telling of this story, and that adds to the thoughtfulness and despair. And the hope.
Sometimes, no matter what two people do to stay apart, fate will find a way to throw them into each other’s arms. And sometimes fate will even use trickery, deception, and camouflage in order to make sure that these two people don’t miss their meeting. Take rocker Romeo Montague (Lauren Hennessy) and homecoming queen Juliet Capulet (Brigette Choura) who both hail from fair Verona, Iowa. They are currently embroiled in a bitter family feud as their mothers – mayoral candidate Claire Capulet (Jeremy Michael Lagunas) and current mayor Evelyn Montague (Matt Welsh) – sling mud at each other and expect their daughters to do the same, while still acting with a modicum of decorum. Easier said than done.
Romeo – an out and proud lesbian – professes to have a crush on the presumably straight Juliet and goes about getting her attention by penning a tune called “Hey Bitch” and then letting it go viral on YouTube. This move is tantamount to a boy pulling a girl’s hair in the school yard and then running away – with much the same effect; Juliet is intrigued, but feigns annoyance. And of course, she’s straight so there’s really no underlying interest. After all, she has a fiance doesn’t she? Never mind that Paris Roberts (Nic Grelli) is somewhat wimpy, rather spineless, and altogether sexless. (They’ve agreed to wait until marriage to have sex and he doesn’t seem to push the point much).
So when Romeo does herself up in male drag in order to pursue another woman (Rosalind), and finds herself instead romancing a masked, unrecognizable Juliet, this couple truly doesn’t know what they’re about to embark on. What they do know is, they’d have more luck stopping a freight train with their fist then they would stopping this attraction they both feel.
In this version, Romeo and Juliet do not pine for each other desperately and live in a far reaching fantasy of flight, fancy and fairyland (okay, okay, I know that they died in the end. But I’m making a point …) in Verona, Iowa these two gals are living it day by day and that means dealing with what it means when one is out and one is not, when one is proud and one is not, when one is willing to do anything for the relationship and one … well, one isn’t so sure.
The only thing I found more of a distraction than anything was the blurring of gender lines in terms of casting. While I applaud the idea that anyone can play anything and I agree with the intention behind it I just couldn’t quite understand what purpose was served by having the mothers played by men in drag … and was even further confused by the grandfather being played by a woman (Anna Savant). It was strange to insert gender-bending actors in a play that dealt so strongly with a character struggling with her orientation.
Lauren Hennessy and Brigette Choura are perfectly cast as the desperate, star-crossed lovers; Hennessy in particular. Her Romeo is confounded by this deep love which twists her in knots – making her feel unconquerable one moment (“Daisy Girl”) and crushed the next (“Plastic Girl”). She is breathtakingly real … often funny, sometimes sarcastic and deeply sexy … her chemistry with Choura (not only during their intimate moments but during her moments of longing as well) can be felt all the way in the back row, and considering this show is playing at The Ellen Stewart Theatre that’s saying a lot. When she sings she seduces and bewitches everyone in the room.
The music by Brian Kirchner is very good, not only standing well on its own but remarkable at underscoring moments in the play when words are not enough. The choir – Diana Oh, Julie Ek and Lauren Weinberg – have some wonderful moments and their “How Will It Happen To You” which closes act one is positively mesmerizing.
The great thing about Ampersand: A Romeo & Juliet Story is that it will leave you not only entertained but with a lot to think about. And that’s what important theatre is all about.
Ampersand: A Romeo & Juliet Story
Writer: Mariah MacCarthy
Director: Amanda Thompson
VENUE #9: The Ellen Stewart Theatre @ LA MAMA
Thu 18 @ 2 Sat 20 @ 12 Sat 27 @ 7:45