This immersive, radical take on Shakespeare’s classic Romeo and Juliet could not have been more aligned with growing up “here and queer,” in theocratic Salt Lake City. London-born acting company, Riot Act takes a bold leap into a classically over-produced play. Director and adaptation writer Whit Hertford lifted the prose from the page and remade them for modern ears.
Unlike many theater experiences in SLC at the moment, the audience is thrust into the action, a departure from the sedentary, non participatory audience experience. The audience walks all around the venue at Kilby Court as the play unfolds, at times in the alleyway, and even looking up onto the roof, where the famous balcony scene occurs. Characters embrace you and exclaim their excitement that we came, pulling us into the play with the first scene, to which we are guests of Juliet’s bridal party.
Juliet is portrayed as a young innocent church girl who is blindly on her way into a marriage with Paris. Of course, the queer street kids crash her bridal party, dressed in ripped fishnets and glitter, launching into monologues on sexual liberation. That is when our star crossed lovers meet. Romeo is a girl-crazy lesbian who is still fawning over Rosalind up until the minute she lays eyes on the innocent blonde Juliet. As an audience we follow this one night only love story around the small courtyard from first kiss to dismal death.
Tybalt and Mercutio, as usual, are the most impactful characters. Their contrast had so much aesthetic and local appeal. The Capulet family wore all white, cap sleeves and even leggings under their dresses–a cultural reference to Utah’s predominant religion. Mercutio donned black spandex shorts with fishnets, a black bra and a very small crop top with an “I <3 Orgasms” pin on it. The hatred between these two is re-invigorated in this story when Tybalt fears that Romeo and her friends are going to turn Juliet gay. (Classic misunderstanding).
The bedroom scene will probably be known to be the most controversial. In this intimate scene, we follow the couple into a small window-paned room with a white bed in the center. I expected a sex scene to happen with us all standing about a half a foot away from them, but they did not, and I was relieved. I find lesbians to be oversexualized and appreciated that Hertford chose not to take that risk.
The social commentary of this play was too real and deep to not shed a tear. Young love can be so intense, don’t you remember? Now imagine being told that you are forbidden to ever be with that person you first fell in love with. That is how our LGBT youth are experiencing the world these days and I really appreciate Riot Act for making such an artistic comment on the pressing matter. The church is preventing our gay brothers and sisters from experiencing physical intimacy and emotional love with the same sex. Our transgender brothers and sisters would rather take their own lives than go through the trauma of coming out and transitioning. This is why Utah has the number one rate for youth suicide- not just LGBT youth suicide- ALL YOUTH. When we don’t validate and understand the seriousness of adolescent emotions when it comes to sexuality, like we see here with Romeo and Juliet, we see a rise in suicide.
This immersive production is a must-see this summer. Opening night was June 12th and there will be a show on June 26, 29 and July 2 at 8pm, Kilby Court. It will be outdoors, you will be standing and moving around for about two hours. The sun setting during the show will make you feel the darkness of forbidden love creep right over you.