Accidental Shakespeare Zooms in on a queer pandemic-era Romeo and Juliet | Ghost Light | Chicago Reader

Accidental Shakespeare Zooms in on a queer pandemic-era Romeo and Juliet 

Director Iris Sowlat uses social isolation as a framework for the lovers; plus PARA.MAR Dance Theatre offers live classes and performances with THAWEN.

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click to enlarge Sierra Bryn Buffum and Melody DeRogatis in Accidental Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Sierra Bryn Buffum and Melody DeRogatis in Accidental Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet

Courtesy Accidental Shakespeare

In the end, it wasn't their dueling families that led to Romeo and Juliet's death—it was a pandemic.

In act five, scene two of Romeo and Juliet, we discover that Friar John's mission to carry a letter from Verona to the banished Romeo in Mantua, letting him know that the reports of Juliet's death were part of a ruse devised by Friar Laurence to get her out of marrying Paris, has been thwarted by fear of "the infectious pestilence" that has shut down Mantua to outsiders. "I could not send it—here it is again—nor get a messenger to bring it thee, so fearful were they of infection," Friar John tells Laurence. 

Is choosing to set the play in contemporary COVID-stricken Chicago on the basis of that barely mentioned (but ultimately crucial) plot point "a cheap stunt"? asks Accidental Shakespeare founder Angeli Primlani in a YouTube video on the company channel. She answers, "Of course it's a cheap stunt! We're broke, like every other theater company in the country." 

More soberingly, Primlani notes that she works for an unnamed organization "that has seen a lot of death, due to COVID-19"—so much so that there is a sign inviting employees to join a "bereavement committee" in the break room. The sign doesn't mention COVID, no more than Shakespeare specified the bubonic plague as the "infectious pestilence." But as Primlani further notes, it wasn't always necessary to spell out AIDS in plays written or set in the 1980s, or tuberculosis 100 years earlier, when alluding to the disease that was taking a horrific toll in those times.

Accidental Shakespeare's production, which unfolds in five episodes (one for each act, released on consecutive Saturdays through June 12) also provides a queer perspective on the story. Director Iris Sowlat, in another video for Accidental Shakespeare, notes, "I'm a gay director and a lot of the work I do is inherently queer art, because that's who I am, and it's a lens through which I see the world." Yet Sowlat says that the idea to center two queer women—Sierra Bryn Buffum and Melody DeRogatis—as the star-crossed lovers arose organically from the casting process.

Sowlat was originally slated to direct the show as a live production, brought on by Accidental Shakespeare's then-artistic director James Anthony. During the auditions in February of 2020, she notes that Anthony asked the actors what roles they wanted to play. "Getting to ask the actors who they want to play in the room is like super-duper revolutionary and empowering," she says in the YouTube video, adding, "I think there is something just super wonderful and just affirming and needed about seeing a Romeo and Juliet who are queer women and/or AFAB nonbinary people who are portraying these characters exactly as Shakespeare wrote them."

In a conversation with me about the production, Sowlat expands on the casting. "I'm gay and James is nonbinary and we definitely had queerness on our mind for a lot of it, and we ended up creating a queer pairing of Romeo and Juliet, who are both played by queer women. But in general, I think it speaks to a broader notion of trying to not typecast." She points out that giving actors the agency to express what role or identity they find speaks to them "ties in with queerness. But it also ties in with conversations about race and ethnicity, body types, age, disability or ability"—a range of diversity that is present throughout the cast.

Though the COVID shutdown obviously ended plans for the live production, Sowlat and the company decided to push on, using Zoom as the primary framework through which the tragedy unfolds. 

"Even today, in many parts of the United States, queer people, especially queer teenagers, are not allowed to be in love with each other," she tells me. "And we were also thinking about how during quarantine, you might have kids and teenagers who are stuck alone at home with their parents who can't really leave the house, and if they're gay and in the closet, it's so much harder, then, to just exist and to be themselves and maintain relationships. Because then your relationship would not only have to be secret, but be secret long-distance."

That secretiveness amid the virtual world infuses the first act—at the "Zoom ball" where Romeo and Juliet first meet, they head into a breakout room to explore their mutual attraction. The Capulet home, as reflected by the different rooms for Lord Capulet (Erik Schiller) and Lady Capulet (Terri Lynne Hudson), shows their distance from each other. He's conferencing in from a very official-looking home office, while she's in the spacious kitchen, drink in hand and a wall of wine bottles on top of the cabinets behind her.

The video format allows for fanciful interludes. Elizabeth Quilter, who plays both Mercutio and Paris, also created a gorgeous sequence incorporating stop-motion animation for Mercutio's "Queen Mab" speech. The opening sequence depicting an early clash between the Montagues and Capulets was filmed outdoors. But for the most part, Sowlat says, the rehearsal and filming process took place at a distance. "Normally you're rehearsing a two-hour play for four to six weeks, you go over each scene multiple times, you can really run the show as a whole and everything. But for us, we were really filming it scene by scene and giving each scene and each act to our film editor [Evelyn Landow]."

The company also decided to go with releasing each act as a separate episode, rather than the whole play at once, as a safeguard against "Zoom fatigue," says Sowlat. The behind-the-scenes YouTube videos also include a look at some of the visual design decisions that arose from both the contemporary setting and the need to make sure that the background and costume elements really popped on camera. "I made Pinterest boards of each character's ideal costume pieces and also different backgrounds and settings they could have if they wanted to. The design process was very collaborative," says Sowlat. 

This fall, Sowlat, whose Chicago resume includes work at Pride Films and Plays (now PrideArts), DeRogatis's Possibilities Theatre, and Broken Nose Theatre's recent Bechdel Fest, heads off to a graduate program in directing at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. But she suspects that what she's learned about both Shakespeare and virtual theater from Accidental's R and J will inform her work in the future. 

"Doing theater over Zoom really erases a lot of barriers, and I've been a part of theater projects this whole year where maybe I've directed something for a festival in New York, or in LA, or I've worked with actors in different parts of the country who are in different time zones," she says. "So I think that the positive side of Zoom theater being so accessible is something that I would like to see continue."

River dance

PARA.MAR Dance Theatre celebrates the return of warm weather—and live performance—this Saturday and Sunday with THAWEN, a performance series being produced at the gallery/event space Rockwell on the River, 3057 N. Rockwell. Each day features a community class at 11 AM, conducted by Ensemble Español. (Saturday's class is for kids ages 4-12, Sunday is for adults.) There are also performances of three pieces—two world premieres by Jennifer Archibald and Lucas Crandall and a reimagining of founder Stephanie Martinez's signature piece, kiss. (Shows are at 1:30, 5:30, and 8:30 PM Saturday and 1:30 and 5:30 PM Sunday.) The immersive performances are designed, the company says, as "an antidote to collective loneliness, as well as a sign of hope." Tickets are pay what you can, but space is limited and reservations are required.  v

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