Punk, Audacious, Powerful: Pittsburgh Classic Players’ “Romeo & Juliet”

By Eva Phillips

Harper York, not unlike two infamously fabled star cross’d lovers, had a feverish, impassioned vision that she was driven to bring to life. Thankfully, unlike those two lovers, however, York isn’t a fourteen-year-old in the throes of new love and utter infatuation who actively gets blackout drunk and engages in wanton bloodshed on the regular—which makes it infinitely easier for her to bring her vision to glorious fruition.

York’s vision, in this case, is the spectacularly-angsty, stirringly thoughtful and evocative imagining of Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy Romeo & Juliet, staged by Pittsburgh Classic Players—a troupe furthering consecrating their status as purveyors of astounding theatre with every new endeavor. Decadently and androgynously glam-punk, divinely queer and genderqueer, and refreshingly audacious, York, who passionately takes the stage as pompous Paris, has engineered a Romeo and Juliet that is bold and speaks to her ingenuity and learned devotion to Shakespeare’s works. This renaissance vision is aided by fastidious stage direction of Ari Andersen, and the clever costuming of Leo Bake, who adorns the all-around-amazing cast in rad digs (and I mean that in the purest sense of the word) of leather, multichromatic bandanas, diaphanous-yet-punk dresses, Chuck Taylors and Doc Martens, and vibrant blouses that would make Bowie flush with envy. Furthermore, the gifted touches of Ryan Bergman (a sort of Shakespeare legend in his own right in Pittsburgh) accentuate this stunning Romeo and Juliet throughout, as his work as Fight Choreographer allows for shockingly real and beautifully orchestrated battles, spars and dueling scenes.

(L to R; Back to Front) Gwen Gibson (Montague), Katie Crandol (Capulet), Jason Via (Romeo), and Olive Schlosser (Juliet) are having a totally fine time

A Shakespeare play is only as good as its cast, at the end of the day—you’re not working with a new or unfamiliar script (usually); and even if you create the most gorgeous set filled with lavish wardrobe and realistic props, if your Macbeth is meager, or your Iago dull and uninspired, the show will lack the vitality that is crucial. Pittsburgh Classic Players have absolutely nothing to worry about in terms of caliber of cast, but anyone familiar with the Players’ oeuvre should know that every cast is assembled with fastidious care and perspicacious insight into performer and character’s needs alike.

Whether it is Mathias Vitullo’s snarky, spirited, and hilariously hungover Benvolio; Maher S. Hoque’s bewildered but fair-minded Prince Escalus; Gwen Gibson’s stymied Montague (and quirky Apothecary); or Marisa Postava’s vengeful and sprite Tybalt (or one of her equally well-rendered roles of Peter and Balthaazar), each artist on the perfectly minimalistic stage (designed by York and constructed by Charlotte Wardzinski) is truly relishing and thriving in their craft. Some of the striking standouts in this exceptional ensemble were performers that, distressingly, were unfamiliar to me prior to this production. Anne Rematt, for example, is nothing short of astounding, and her Mercutio—brimming with bravado, adorned with sardonic charm, and marked by tragic loyalty—is captivating, seemingly the product of an artist who lives and breathes the Shakespearean performance. Similarly, Pat Nolan, who I am livid I have not seen in more productions, is distinctly delightful as the mellifluous-tongued, always-conflicted Lady Capulet.

Katie Crandol (Capulet) is the life of the party

The newer faces (to this writer, at least), are in good company with well-known performers like Players founding member and Managing Director Katie Crandol (who is joined by fellow founding member Brett Sullivan Santry in his thrilling cameos), whose plethora of enchanting and powerful talents are magnificently on display here as Capulet (and in one of the best Capulet marriage renderings I’ve had the pleasure of watching); and Hazel Carr Leroy, who is ebullient, tempered and enchanting as ever as Friar Laurence (and Servant), and I imagine the expectant elation of seeing Leroy appear in a production is akin to seeing Angela Landsbury pop-up in her stage career heyday. Finally, Kathleen Regan, who I do not get to see enough on stage, quite frankly, is unreasonably excellent as the boisterous, officious, but ultimately pure-of-heart Nurse.  In many ways, the Nurse provides a moral compass for Romeo and Juliet, and Regan not only lives up to that standard in her performance, but beautifully explores the complexities and nuances of a character that does not receive the attention in Shakespeare’s canon that the Nurse deserves. Regan was truly made for this role, and brilliantly makes it her own.

I would be remiss, and blasphemous, honestly, to not speak to the performances of the titular leads. Jason Via’s tempestuous, love-plagued, and contritely feisty Romeo is superb. Both staying true to the Ur-Romeo and transforming the legendary teen into something more modern, Via presents a Romeo that is never not haunted by the world around him and the myriad issues plaguing him psychologically and emotionally. The Romeo in this production is very apparently a fourteen-year-old, and that’s a refreshing boon—Via is all at once eager, volatile, steadfast, a bit of a fuckboi, a romantic, aloof, and seeking a greater truth that we all sought in high school. He is relatable and engaging in this production.

Jason Via (Romeo) and Olive Schlosser (Juliet)

As Juliet, Olive Schlosser is, without exaggeration, prodigious. Her portrayal of Juliet, much like Via’s Romeo, is very aware of the profound teen-ness of the character, but is also strikingly mature and self-possessed (often disarmingly so, to Schlosser’s credit). Schlosser’s Juliet is articulated in such a way that conveys the infinity of burdens, presumptions, violences, and limitations exacted upon young women that they are expected to contend with while maintaining some reviling, mythical standard of purity. And, what’s more, Schlosser manages this caliber of complex performance and conveyance while still being comical and vulnerable. Schlosser has the onstage confidence and dexterity of an artist several decades into a bountiful career, so to consider what she may continue to do and the roles she will tackle and reinvent is exhilarating.

It is always a treat for me to experience moments that recall my K-12 years at a conservative Christian school in Virginia in such a way that either subverts the rigidity of my curriculum, or indicates that perhaps some of my teachers were subverting that rigidity all along. Case in point, in 7th Grade Honors English, my teacher Ms. Fitzgerald was adamant, against all odds, that we immediately follow our dissection of Romeo and Juliet with a three-week long dive into S.E. Hinton’s equally-angsty manual for vexed teens, The Outsiders. The syllabus was constructed to emphasize teenage love, rebellion, strife, nonconformity, and mental illness. The latter dimensions of this syllabus escaped me, ironically, because I was thirteen, a budding bipolar kid, convinced I was brighter than any syllabus one of our teachers could assemble, and more concerned with memorizing South Park episodes (it was 2003, sorry). But York’s masterful adaptation of Romeo & Juliet—which very expertly works in Outsiders‘ motifs and overtures, as well as other intertextual nods to queer, genderfluid, heteronormative defying staples—is, for me at least, an excellent clapback to 7th Grade Honors English with Ms. Fitz and the universal themes that are so fascinatingly pertinent to us now. York and Co. challenged me to ponder, perhaps, Ms. Fitz anticipated that angry queer teens would resonate deeply with R&J in ways they clearly wouldn’t grasp immediately. This Romeo and Juliet not only effortlessly explores the intricacies of identity, the onerousness of patriarchal expectations, and the ways in which mental illness is misconstrued, but it does so while staying true to the meat and flourishes that made the text legendary. Pittsburgh Classic Players’ Romeo and Juliet is supremely smart, a clever triumph and a helluva evening of theatre and craftmanship.

For tickets and more information on Romeo & Juliet and Pittsburgh Classic Players, visit their site.

Photography Credit: Sarah Schreck

Categories: Archived Reviews

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,