Rude Mechanicals add LGBTQIA+ twist to ‘Romeo and Juliet’

by Mia Russo | 11/7/19 2:00am

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Juliet calls from her balcony, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” These lines are recognized around the world. However, this time, the story is a little different. Imagine Juliet’s balcony as a modern apartment complex with a Pride parade running through the streets below, and her Romeo being a woman. This was the grounding idea for student-run theater group the Dartmouth Rude Mechanicals’ production of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” last weekend. 

“Romeo and Juliet” is often considered the greatest love story ever written. Filled with romance and comedy contrasting great tragedy and loss, the story has proved timeless. However, this love story is often simplified, romanticized and taken for granted. In reality, Shakespeare crafted a complex yet heartbreaking play with themes that span centuries. Although the play has come to represent the pinnacle of stereotypical love stories, “Romeo and Juliet” features layers of dark themes including teenage suicide and parental disapproval.

Conor Roemer ’23 said that working on this production of “Romeo and Juliet” led him to gain a greater appreciation for the timelessness of Shakespeare and how his works can be applied to many settings and generations.

“The story was not just applicable when Shakespeare was alive ­— but you can really apply those themes to any time period,” Roemer said. “It shows the appeal of Shakespeare’s works; great literature tries to encompass timeless themes, and if you can have ‘Romeo and Juliet’ set during Pride in 2019, that is basically the epitome of that.”

A member of the Rude Mechanicals, Nathaniel Stornelli ’21 decided to direct “Romeo and Juliet” as the group’s student-directed Shakespeare play this term. However, to twist the traditional story, they decided to set it during Pride in Italy, with Romeo being a woman and gender swapping throughout. 

According to Stornelli, the group, which is the only fully student-run theater group on campus, functions very differently from many other performance groups as they are a fully collaborative ensemble. All auditions are held in front of the entire group and casting is decided on collaboratively. Stornelli said that the performance was a team effort, and it is this collaboration that made the show possible. 

According to Stornelli, the group made a point during rehearsals to emphasize this collaboration and teamwork among the ensemble because they felt it was in these moments that the play would come together. 

“Working with the Dartmouth Rude Mechanicals is so great because I bring a lot of ideas to the table, but my cast has even more, and they do so many things that I would have never thought of,” Stornelli said. “I think that that kind of teamwork and that kind of building off of each other is really important.” 

Roemer, who played Prince Escalus in the production, explained how the ensemble base allowed the cast and crew to explore very sensitive topics.

“‘Romeo and Juliet’ is the type of play where you have to be able to work as a community to be able to showcase certain themes, because a lot of the themes that we deal with are tough to handle,” Roemer said. “There are themes of suicide and family disapproval, and I think having a good strong community to showcase those themes makes the play stronger.” 

Alex Wells ’22, who played Mercutio, discussed how mentally taxing the rehearsal process was at times due to these sensitive topics. 

“After scenes where there are hate crimes and deaths, we would take a moment to regroup before we moved on,” Wells said. “We generally avoided doing those scenes multiple times in one day just because it was very emotionally draining.” 

Though dealt with elegantly with class and composure, the dark truth of “Romeo and Juliet” seemed more apparent in this portrayal than in other performances which might emphasize the typical love story associated with the play. With themes of familial disapproval and suicide in relation to the LGBTQIA+ community projected onto the classic love story, it took on a new form that was startlingly realistic and overwhelming. 

“It’s easy to dismiss ‘Romeo and Juliet’ — it’s a story that we all know, it’s a story that gets taught in a way to explain how teens are young, impulsive and stupid. They think they know what love is but they don’t, and that gets them killed,” Stornelli said. “Especially after having directed it, I don’t think the story is about that at all. I think it’s a story about the tragedy of hatred and hatred being projected onto the youth, and the terrible things that that creates — the tragedy of teen violence and suicide. I think by adding to it the element of closeted homosexuality, that only serves to make the text even richer and more relevant in the modern day.”

The play follows the same storyline as Shakespeare’s original text — however, there were many added twists and deleted segments that were incorporated to emphasize the LGBTQIA+ subplot. A romance between Benvolio and Mercutio was created as they experienced personal attacks and violence during Pride. The parental suppression of Juliet’s sexuality was exaggerated as she was forced into marriage with a man, Paris. 

The play closes after the deaths of Juliet, Romeo and Paris, punctuated with Benvolio’s heartbroken sobbing. It is this touch at the end that was the most jarring for the audience, emphasizing the emotional turmoil and real-life pain experienced around the world regarding suicide and death. 

After viewing this production of “Romeo and Juliet,” the audience is left shaken with the heaviness of teenage suicide, specifically among the LGBTQIA+ community. 

According to Stornelli, many members of the Rude Mechanicals identify as LGBTQIA+, and the discussion of relevant themes was important in their production of this play.

Wells said that the troupe recognized the power of their platform and how they could use the production of “Romeo and Juliet” to spread a positive message about the importance of kindness, acceptance and empathy toward all people, especially those of marginalized communities. 

“I hope the audience members view the play as an opportunity to be introspective about the ways that they interact with others,” Stornelli said. “I hope people walk away from the show thinking about the rates of violence and suicide among queer teens and thinking about what they can do to make the world more accepting and less violent.”