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Love Stinks

Playhouse's Romeo & Juliet sacrifices sense for sensibility.

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There are two reasons to put Shakespeare's Juliet in a wheelchair: One might discover from a first draft of Romeo & Juliet that Shakespeare originally intended his perfect female lover to be rich, 13, and paralyzed from the waist down. Or a director might discover an actress who has everything it takes to play the part except for the use of her legs.

To cast an ambulatory actress as a wheelchair-bound Juliet is to suggest that the character, for all of her charm and beauty, is broken or incomplete until a fickle goth jerkwad with ADD and an obnoxious haircut comes along and asks her to the big dance. That, I am sorry to report, is exactly what happens in Playhouse on the Square's disastrously wrongheaded interpretation of the world's most famous meditation on the wars old men start and the yearning kids who die fighting them. In addition to mistrusting his time-proven text, guest director Drew Fracher treats contemporary youth culture with all the accuracy and emotional detail of a minstrel show. Even the play's program should come with a warning label alerting patrons to the fact that it contains toxic misinformation.

"For a director, Shakespeare always presents challenges in terms of making the play's honesty accessible to a modern audience," Fracher writes. "Finding a hook that will allow people to really hear and bathe in the amazing poetry that is his genius" is of utmost importance, he says.

In a 2007 production of Romeo & Juliet at Germantown Community Theatre, director Kyle Hatley cast Jane Kilgore in the traditionally male role of Benvolio but focused on the confessional, sibling-like relationship between the two characters, not on the gender switch. It was a transformative choice that imposed nothing on the script that wasn't already there to begin with. Fracher, likewise, chose a female Benvolio then unsexed her by turning Courtney Oliver into a giggling warrior mutant from futures past with a purple wig that looks like it was liberated from the set of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.

Here Romeo (D.J. Hill) is reimagined as a dreary, androgynous cross between Hamlet and Stanley Kowalski, while Mercutio (Alvaro Francisco) is transformed into Romeo's spastic drag queen friend who's given to exhibitionism and is every bit as crazy as Blanche DuBois. Contrary to Fracher's comments, the "hook" — in this case, multimedia nonsense, a wheelchair, and gender-bending performances — makes it extremely difficult to even hear Shakespeare's poetry let alone "bathe in it." Forget understanding. That only happens when Stephen Huff's Lord Capulet or Irene Crist's Nurse are onstage. They are the only recognizably human characters in the show. Huff's Capulet is so comparatively sympathetic, the theater marquee could be changed to read Drew Fracher's Capulet: A Tragedy of Best Intentions.

The real tragedy here is Ashley Davis' Juliet. You see, the effervescent Davis, who also played Juliet in GCT's equally over-conceptualized but much better Romeo & Juliet, may never have another chance to play Romeo's lady love as an overprotected teenager crushing hard on forbidden fruit. Twice now she's proven that she could be a really fantastic Juliet if only someone would let her play the damn part the way it was written.

Fracher's previous work includes some of Playhouse's most provocative productions in recent memory. His Macbeth was an effective postmodern romp through Shakespeare's bloody regicidal nightmare, and his gently off-kilter take on Of Mice & Men was a high-water mark for Memphis theater. Obviously, you can't win them all.

Through April 19th

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