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R&J, The Gay Way

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Homo Romeo: Chris Rivera (l) plays Romeo, and Joey Hancock plays Julian in a new production of Romeo & Juliet at Phoenix Inc. Theatre Company.

Or ‘Where for art thou, Julian?’

by Marene Gustin (Photo by Jack Ivy)

Phoenix Inc. Theatre Company takes on the Bard this month with two versions of the classic, tragic love tale Romeo and Juliet. Same cast, different orientations.

Artistic director Illich Guardiola directs this modern take on the ill-fated lovers that will alternate with a version directed by Trish Rigdon, in which the two lovers are named Romeo and Julian. Poor Friar Lawrence has to struggle not only with marrying lovers from warring families, but also with figuring out how to handle a same-sex union.

“It’s been a long-burning desire of mine for some time to direct this version of Romeo and
Juliet
,” says Rigdon, who has more than a decade of experience as an associate producer, director, and lighting and costume designer in theater
and film.

“It really came from some issues that happened to my daughter’s friend,” she explains. “Her ex-boyfriend turned out to be gay. Another ex-girlfriend outed him, and his parents kicked him out of the house. That really shook me up, in a really profound way. She was still friends with him and asked me what we could do to help him, and I said, ‘We’re going to go get him.’ And we did. He stayed with us, and also with other friends. He’s doing well now, but the idea that his parents could do that, it just hurt me to the core.”

In this R & J gay version, Julian is gay, but his parents want him to marry a girl and threaten to throw him out if he refuses.

Chris Rivera, a popular local actor and acting coach, plays Romeo.

“At the beginning, he’s in love with a woman,” Rivera explains. “But when he meets Julian dressed in drag at the ball, he falls in love with that smart, witty person. When he finds out he’s really a man, it just doesn’t matter.

“Love is love.”

Rivera has no problem with that concept. For years he considered himself gay, but has now decided to drop all of the labels. “I feel the same way as Romeo does in my own life,” he says. “Why should it matter if the person is male or female if you really love them?”

An added benefit of the production for Rivera is that he’ll be directing a transgender version of another William Shakespeare tale next summer for Unhinged Productions. His A Midsummer Night’s Dream will feature Lysander as a girl, and Hermia as the boy.

“So working with Trish on this production will be a wonderful way
to see how she does it,” he says.

And it appears she is doing it
with ease.

“In Shakespeare’s time all the roles were played my men,” Rigdon says. “I started thinking how it would play if they really were men. It actually wasn’t difficult at all. I haven’t had to change much: Juliet to Julian, she to he. The iambic pentameter is still the same.”

William Shakespeare himself is not above the whole sexual ambiguity thing. Married with three children, it’s long been speculated that he was either gay or bisexual, based on a collection of 154 sonnets he wrote that apparently were not intended for publication—many of which appear to be dedicated to a young man. And literary types have waffled over some of the characters in his plays, such as Iago in Othello, having homosexual tendencies.

This isn’t the first time Romeo and Juliet has been portrayed as a gay love affair. In 1993 Sam Abdul directed a gay porno film titled Romeo and Julian: A Love Story, and just last year students at the Leytonstone School in London created a stir when they performed a version of Romeo and Julian during England’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans (LGBT) History Month. Heated debate ensued, but legendary actor and gay supporter Sir Ian McKellen—who actually saw the play, unlike some complaining members of Parliament—said, “Romeo and Julian provokes just the sort of discussion which is needed on gay issues.”

“That’s exactly why we’re doing this,” says the straight, Baptist-raised Rigdon. “I think the resonance from the play will be deeper. In October of 2008 I attended the wedding of a dear friend in Los Angeles, who was finally able to marry his longtime partner. It was a beautiful wedding and I got to dance with both grooms. But it shook me hard—here he had waited all those years for something I took for granted.

“Love is love, it’s about a person, not sexuality. It is what it is. We are who we are. I am who I am because of my friends and loved ones.”

And no matter what Shakespeare’s personal sexual desires were, or the speculation over his characters’ orientations, Rigdon thinks the Bard of Avon would be proud.

“I personally think Shakespeare would be thrilled that we live in an age where this could be done. And I hope the gay community will be proud of this as well.”

Romeo and Juliet plays at Frenetic Theater, 5102 Navigation, Sept. 23–26 and Sept. 30–Oct. 3. Rigdon’s production shows every Thursday and Saturday, and Guardiola’s production runs on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the door or by calling the box office at 281/221-1878. For more information on Phoenix Inc. Theatre Company, log on to phoenixinctheatrecompany.com.

Marene Gustin is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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