Performed for only one weekend, from Nov. 10 to Nov. 12, Boston-based queer creator collective What If?’s “Romeo and Juliet” remained committed to both quality artmaking and radically inclusive community-building. Harmonizing seemingly contrasting elements, director Aloe Dickson’s lively and unorthodox vision yielded a well-done, moving tragedy infused with fast-paced humor and an attention to detail that did not detract from free and spontaneous artistic exploration, and outstanding performances from actors despite the casual and laid-back staging.
The intrigue of What If?’s “Romeo and Juliet” began even before arrival at the destination. After receiving the address to a private location, audience members embarked on a walking adventure — under an unpleasant overpass, alongside a busy non-pedestrian road, and down an easily-missed dirt path — to reach a nondescript white building that seemed more like a place to avoid than a performance venue.
The mysterious journey made it all the more thrilling to enter What If?’s colorful, cozy, hidden basement space. The neon mushrooms and hula hoops on the walls, sideways penguin and disco ball on the ceiling, and beanbags and dry paint on the floors immediately established the artsy, unconventional, and unconstrained nature of What If?.
These qualities were also clear throughout the show, which had a light, youthful spirit. With contemporary music like “Wildest Dreams” by Taylor Swift and “Sad Femme Club” by Kimmortal, contemporary costumes by Charlotte Stowe, and vibrant performances from every actor, this production of “Romeo and Juliet” did not drag. Dickson’s choice to heavily highlight comedic bits played to the strengths of the cast and rendered the show more engaging, accessible, and enjoyable for the audience.
Even still, What If?’s creative risks extended beyond comedy, maintaining the tragedy essential to “Romeo and Juliet.” For example, right before Romeo and Juliet died alongside each other, they locked eyes and — both alive and conscious for a brief moment — shared a kiss before their fatal ends, despite the common interpretation that the lovers are not awake together at the same time. Dickson’s bold choice for such a famous scene worked well and contributed to its heartbreaking effect.
The most compelling aspects of the production were remarkable performances from Zoa Archer (“Romeo”) and Melinda Kalanzis (“Juliet”), accurately described online as “two baddies.” Archer was captivating, lighting up the stage with her infectious energy, strong stage presence, and wide emotional range. Kalanzis played Juliet in a genuine and convincing manner, with sensitivity and heart. Displaying the romantic yearning essential to “Romeo and Juliet,” the joyfulness essential to What If?’s production, and undeniable stage chemistry, Archer and Kalanzis made Romeo and Juliet lovable characters — which is a difficult feat and often the greatest challenge to a successful production of this play.
Moreover, Conor Bean (“Lord Capulet”) and Jorge Gutierrez (“Tybalt”/“Paris”) mastered an obnoxious, arrogant rapport as Capulet and Paris, properly establishing the significance of their characters. Laura Clabaugh (“Nurse”/“Montague”) had impeccable comedic timing as the Nurse, which was refreshing for the role. Gretchen Waldorf (“Mercutio”/“Lady Capulet”) approached deep, complex emotions with maturity and skill: When Capulet threatened to disown Juliet, Waldorf stole the show, despite having few lines in that scene. Jolyne Allegro (“Benvolio”/“Friar”) brought a tasteful goofiness that completed the show.
Every actor performed with a strong grasp of the text, having worked with the Shakespearean language and scansion of iambic pentameter to a point of mastery and, beyond that, reinvigoration. The verbal work demonstrated that creativity, imagination, and fun can coexist with intellect, high-quality artmaking, and capability of handling difficult drama.
At the end of the show, Kalanzis said to the audience, “I have always wanted to make this kind of weird, gay basement art that really means so much to all of us.”
The audience responded with a warm laugh, but Kalanzis’ statement was both honest and important. What If?’s “Romeo and Juliet” was wholesome, eccentric, and unapologetically queer. Above all, it was good art. Listening to an expertly-delivered “a rose by any other name” soliloquy over the smell of marijuana and the sound of trains rushing by on the Orange Line was healing. Reaching What If?’s location might have felt dangerous at first, but upon arrival, audiences felt safer than ever and were fortunate enough to witness excellent art.
—Staff Writer Vivienne N. Germain can be reached at email@example.com