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This R&J is a sexy version of The OC

Mnemonic Theatre may be producing a lesbian version of Romeo and Juliet on Sunset Beach, but they’re not trying to make a statement.  After all, director Jordan Dibe didn’t even intend to cast a woman in the role of Romeo.

Despite its female casting this production is not about making Romeo and Juliet into a lesbian story.

Despite its female casting this production is not about making Romeo and Juliet into a lesbian story.

“We put out the call for auditions and we had so many beautiful, experienced women applying who were really excited about the show and the idea, and I think at the end of it, four resumes from men.  One of whom had never actually read Shakespeare,” recalls Dibe.

With odds like that, he had an understandably difficult time filling the male roles.  In fact, Dibe almost gave up trying to find enough men for the show and not only canceled plans for the production, but even made plans to move away and join his boyfriend out east.

Casting the two women in the leads was a crazy idea that emerged three beers into his goodbye party: “I just said screw it, let’s just cast whoever is best in the role.”

With that kind of freedom, he filled the roster by casting both Romeo and Mercutio with female actors.

“It’s sort of a happy accident,” says Dibe, “We’re finding all these great little moments now that we weren’t expecting.  It’s fun to surprise yourself.”

Don’t expect to see a couple of girls doing their best impressions of men, though.  The roles that are played by women are being transformed into female characters, adding new layers to the story.

“It’s been really interesting to find the sexual playfulness that everyone is able to have with each other.  Everyone is sort of pansexual,” he explains, describing the production as “a sort of sexy version of The OC meets Shakespeare on the beach.”

Another surprise that emerged is the impact on the traditional gender roles imbued in the story,

“The relationship between Romeo and Juliet has been so much more fun with two women because the roles can switch a little bit more,” he says. “One of the things I hate more than anything in the world is a waif-like innocent Juliet.  It’s so boring.  Here they’re a bit more even-keeled in their relationship and can play back and forth a bit more.”

Despite the female casting, Dibe insists that this production is not about making Romeo and Juliet into just a lesbian story, but to go deeper.

“I don’t want to make this a gay production.  The point of the show is not that it’s two women.  The point is that it’s two people in love and it’s tragic.”

The political implications of two women playing lovers in a tragic love story, however, is not lost on Dibe, as he reflects on current events and the fact that, “at the end of the day, people die because of this relationship.”

Gender-bend aside, it won’t go unnoticed by audience members that across the water are the bright white and red tents of Vancouver’s long-running annual Shakespeare festival.  Before people start making assumptions, however, Dibe makes one thing very clear: “I love Bard on the Beach and we are not doing this to compete with them.”

They are not, he asserts, even in the same realm Bard on the Beach and in no way could they be considered competition.

“We’re not in a tent, we’re not doing period dress, our sword fights are with pieces of driftwood.  It’s totally different.”

Plus there is a big difference in price tag, with the Mnemonic Theatre production free and open to passers-by which means they are “not taking anything away” from the box office across the water.

There is a downside for this free-to-all approach tough and that’s an unexpectedly practical one.

“I just want to make sure the audience can hear the actors,” Dibe says, explaining that they have little control over the space; if there’s a volleyball game or a family BBQ nearby, then those events become a part of the atmosphere of the play.

Like so many other aspects of this production however, Dibe has turned the potential sound problem into a positive.

“Sometimes it’s a nice discovery in a moment that you would expect to be quiet and intimate, but the actor will be forced to come out with it big and loud and it’s really interesting,” he says.  “The text was written to be read like that – it was a loud and boisterous space that they were filling to begin with.”

At the end of the day, however, Dibe emphasizes again and again the spirit of fun with which the entire team is approaching this classic tale: “we’re just going to set up shop and entertain people.”

Romeo and Juliet

Mnemonic Theatre presents a free production from August 20 – 31 at Sunset Beach.  Visit http://www.mnemonictheatre.com for more information.

Andrea LoewenAndrea is a theatre-maker, yoga instructor, writer and ally to the LGBTQ community in Vancouver. She spends her days as the Communications Manager for Pacific Theatre, and is Co-Artistic Producer for Xua Xua Productions, a founding member of Les Petites Taquines Dance Theatre, and the marketing chair for the Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards Society. She writes a weekly column for VancouverisAwesome.com and freelances as a yoga instructor and choreographer. When she has some down time she enjoys some green tea and quality time with her cat, Miss Gertie Marie.

Follow Andrea on Twitter or find her online at http://www.andrealoewen.com.

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