Seattle Immersive Theatre specializes in creating fully immersive theatrical experiences for its audiences. In Listening Glass, a show they produced last October, the immersive elements were thoughtful and they meaningfully contributed to the action of the play. I can't say the same about SIT’s production of Romeo and Juliet.
For Shakespeare’s classic tale of woe, the company seems to have spent more energy on world-building than they did on the quality of an audience member’s experience in that world, resulting in a show that seemed like an exhausting and expensive Romeo and Juliet theme park.
Romeo and Juliet is the first show SIT has staged in their new and VERY BIG warehouse-sized Queen Anne theater. Ambitiously large sets fill the space. One’s a fancy-looking ballroom for dancin’ and snackin’, one’s a courtyard for fightin’ and courtin’, one’s a church for schemin’ and dyin’, one’s Juliet’s bedroom for dreamin’ and bonin’. The build-out is impressive for its size, but the blinding stadium lights bouncing off the hard concrete floors and the fake-looking props made me feel as if I were about to go on a Hollywood studio tour of a low-rent adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
Before the action begins, the audience gathers in the ballroom, puts on face-swallowing masks, pays for overpriced and poorly made novelty cocktails with names like “Banished” (which are impossible to drink underneath those masks), and stands around wondering whether it’s legal to snag an appetizer draped in gauzy gold cloth (it is not, not yet). Finally, Friar Laurence (played by with both warmth and sassy gusto by Devin Bannon, who—full disclosure—works in The Stranger’s advertising department) stands up and announces the ground rules. We’re told to keep our masks on during the play, and that actors will give random audience members a tug when it’s time to move from one room to another. Then the thumb-biting begins.
While the freedom of moving around among the players did allow for interesting perspectives on the action, and while the masks did lend the performance a quasi-Eyes Wide Shut vibe, being herded around the sets between scenes became monotonous. The crowd of about 40 bottlenecked at the doorways during every transition, resulting in a re-entry to the world of social etiquette (holding open curtains for people, trying to step on toes, etc.), which worked against any attempt at immersion.
The costumes were all over the place, referencing trends from the early-to mid- aughts. Romeo’s head was variously topped with one of those creepy droopy beanies or a proto-steam-punk top hat. Lady Capulet emerged as a yoga mom. Mercutio’s party outfit was white on white with slicked back hair, reminding me of the sleazeballs who’d dress up to go bowling in Missouri.
There was also a sorta-false advertising issue. Press materials promised “free-flowing champagne during the evening's festivities, a delectable sampling of hors d'oeuvres, and access to the bar, which features sexy specialty cocktails inspired by love... or maybe it's lust?” Just so you know, “free-flowing champagne” means quickly knocking back one or two glasses of champagne during the Capulet’s ball, and “access to the bar,” means you can pay for $10 cocktails. The “sampling of hors d’oeuvres” includes crab rangoon and some chocolates. It’s hard to knock crab rangoon and chocolates, but the combo is a little strange. The booze situation was particularly cruel on account of the chilliness of the poorly insulated warehouse. I wanted to booze up for heat, but my bank account blushed.
There’s lots of gender swapping going on in the casting of the play. Carter Rodriquez plays a very tired-seeming Nurse. Melissa Topscher plays the fiery Tybalt. Romeo and Juliet are both played by women, Marianna de Fazio and Katherine Jett respectively. But SIT’s media liaison, Julia Nardin, told me in an e-mail that in this production the character Romeo identifies as a trans man. The only way an audience member would know that Romeo identifies as a trans man is if they were paying close attention to Tybalt, who is the only person in the play who misgenders Romeo, referring to the lover as “she” and “her.” For the audience member who did not get that e-mail from Nardin, it'd be hard to tell if Tybalt’s misgendering is a breaking-of-the-fourth-wall thing (pointing out that the actor is a woman dressed in what's traditionally considered to be men's clothing) or a playground jab thing (i.e. “you’re acting like a girl, Romeo”) or an effort to tag Tybalt as a transphobe in order to highlight the fact that trans people are bullied simply for being trans. Maybe my wishing for more clarity here only speaks to how deeply I’ve internalized the notion of a gender binary, but, since only the most bullying character in the play levels the insult, and since that bullying only happens a few times early on in the three hour production, it was hard for me to tell that Romeo identified as a trans man.
Regardless, you have a woman in a lead role playing a trans man in a cautionary tale about the peril of young romance that ends in a double suicide. Suicide attempts among transgender and non-conforming adults are very high. So a play that involves the issues of suicide and society determining who you are and who you can love definitely resonates with the kinds of discrimination that trans people face everyday, but it was hard to hear that note over the din of the production’s thousand distractions.