Theatre LILA Reinvents Shakespeare with Queer Themed ‘Romeo and Juliet’
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: HJ Farr as Juliet and Kelsey Elyse Rodriguez as Romeo. Photo by Mick McKiernan.
Jessica Lanius, artistic director and co-founder of Theatre LILA, started daydreaming about a new version of Romeo and Juliet over 10 years ago. Finally, after last season’s Lines, a production that explored how the lives of women of color separate and connect, a light bulb went off. Why couldn’t Romeo and Juliet be performed with two women?
“The conversation around Lines was getting more voices and stories represented,” Lanius explains. “I can’t remember the last time I went to a play and saw a love story that wasn’t about an issue around being gay or the LGBTQ experience, but was just a story of two people of the same sex falling in love.”
The casting call, which encouraged queer, transgender and non-binary actors to audition, caught the attention of Heather Jane (HJ) Farr. Farr plays Juliet and identifies as queer in both their sexuality and gender. They are excited to give representation to people who normally don’t see themselves in this story.
“I actually find that the new spin makes it easier to tell the story of Romeo and Juliet,” Farr says. “The addition of the taboo queer relationship fits the text nearly perfectly, with the exception of a few pronoun changes, and the tension between the families is painfully relatable in today’s political climate.”
Along with placing a same sex couple at the center of Romeo and Juliet, Lanius translated some of Shakespeare’s passages to Spanish. Here the Montagues are a racially-blended, afro-latino family and Lanius wanted the audience to see the family speak in their native language.
HJ Farr as Juliet and Kelsey Elyse Rodriguez as Romeo. Photo by Mick McKiernan.
“For the Spanish speakers that are there in the room, it welcomes them into this world and goes ‘hey, we see you and represent you,’” says Kelsey Elyse Rodriguez, who plays Romeo. “There are honest moments in which maybe you don’t necessarily understand the language, but you understand the emotion.”
Lanius explains that the scenes in Spanish are the more famous moments of the piece, like when Romeo first sees Juliet on the balcony, so people who don’t speak Spanish will still have a general sense of what is happening.
“We are asking our English speaking audience to lean in and maybe not know,” Lanius says. “Maybe they will have an experience that some people have when they don’t speak English and they are sitting in the audience.”
While Romeo and Juliet is commonly portrayed with more than 25 performers, Theatre LILA’s production will feature only 11 actors, with most playing multiple roles. Lanius also added a five-member dance ensemble, helping to enhance the emotions in the story through movement.
In an effort to bring the production to as many teenagers as possible, Theatre LILA performed the show at East High School on March 1 and invited several high schools to see the production at the Overture Center during the run of the show .
“People have strong feelings about these characters,” Lanius explains. “When you are doing a more abstract play or new work, you don’t have that. I really tried to put blinders on and not worry about the expectation and just work off the language and work off the people we have in the room to tell the story.”
Romeo & Juliet: A Theatre LILA Invention runs March 14 – 17 at Overture Center for the Arts’ Promenade Hall. For tickets, visit overture.org or call the box office at (608) 258-4141.