Bending Gender High and Low in R&J and Pride’s Crossing

Without doubt, or camp, the best Juliet I’ve seen in years is currently being played by a man. And in a sense, it’s not so unusual.

Cross-dressing has a noble lineage though it isn’t as easy as it may seem. It isn’t the dress but the spirit that fills it. So Daniel Shore’s Juliet at the John Houseman Studio Theater is a theatrical gem because he somehow captures the spirit of a young woman in love in “the two-hour traffic of our stage” with complete, un-camp naturalness. Mr. Shore’s Juliet is so convincing, he changes sex.

That is, he does and he doesn’t. He is not RuPaul, thank goodness. (One is enough.) He remains himself throughout the performance. He remains a young man, for all to see. Mr. Shore, in his early 20’s, plays the 14-year-old Juliet without the usual disguises-a frock, say, or long blond tresses of boundless feminine allure. Along with the three other young male actors who also play female roles in this thrillingly successful new production of Romeo and Juliet , Mr. Shore is dressed in the uniform of a prep-school boy.

Here’s something fresh and surprising: A four-man version of Romeo and Juliet set in a prep school of horny boys that works! I feared it wouldn’t, to be honest. There’s too much gender-bending going on, which often makes an easy avant-garde “statement” for its own draggy sake. An experimental Romeo and Juliet in which four male actors play all the parts stood a fair chance, too, of turning out to be an act of lunacy. But the Expanded Arts’ R&J (as it’s known) has been directed by Joe Calarco with enormous integrity, and the outcome is a triumph.

On one intriguing level, the production actually takes us to the very heart of acting, which is the mysterious art of pretending to be someone else-or telling a magnificent lie truthfully. Mr. Shore’s Juliet is a direct link to the Elizabethan stage of Shakespeare in which, of course, all the female roles were played by boys. Or, more likely, by young men. It’s difficult to imagine a boy playing Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra. It’s scarcely easier to imagine Cleopatra as a young man. But in Puritan England, that’s the way it was-and no one had a problem with it. If there had been a problem, we would know .

In the irreplaceable bastardized tradition of British pantomime, the old affectionate crone known as the Dame is played to this day by a man, and her daughter, the young romantic lead known as the Principal Boy, is invariably a girl with strapping thighs. So we have a boy who’s a girl whose mother is a man. Is it any wonder the British get confused?

Gender-swapping has a noble theater lineage, as I say. After all, for hundreds of years, men have performed all female roles in Japanese kabuki (and in such an astonishing way it’s theorized that femininity can only be truly acted by a man). The ultimate achievement of Mr. Shore’s Juliet is to convince us that his gender doesn’t matter. To the contrary, his Juliet isn’t stereotypically demure or winsomely flushed with love. His Juliet is all too real-and dangerous-precisely because Juliet’s passionate love for Romeo is illicit.

R&J’s imaginative director has made it clear that his concept of students in a private school first reading the play, then acting it, was created to mirror Shakespeare’s Verona and the stifling, repressive world that Romeo and Juliet inhabit. It’s a brilliantly simple concept that works in remarkable ways. The prep-school boys themselves at first sniggeringly dismiss the play, only to be seduced by it, which is nice. Juliet’s first entrance stifles their laughter. She is serious-and seriously in love. Love, when spoken as beautifully as this, is no laughing matter.

So the well-known story of Romeo and Juliet’s forbidden love is made new, as if told for the first time. The testosterone youth and vitality of the prep-school kids themselves makes the action come alive. Using minimum means in the small black box of a stage, the four performers effortlessly conjure up maximum effect. But more than any other production of Romeo and Juliet I’ve seen, the danger of the star-crossed young lovers’ sexual awakening is real rather than “romantic.” It’s as real and as secret as the first kiss between two schoolboys.

Mr. Shore’s wonderful Juliet (with Danny Gurwin’s witty, disciplined Nurse; Mr. Gurwin is another fine young actor) give gender-bending a very good name. They make formidable women. Compare them, if you will, to the self-conscious, phony cross-dressers in Tina Howe’s homage to faded haute WASPdom, Pride’s Crossing , at Lincoln Center. Ms. Howe, proud feminist that she is, has it both ways-women play men and men play women-in what otherwise struck me as an unsurprising, pretty conventional drama about, of all things, a Boston Brahmin named Mabel who swam the English Channel in 1928.

Cherry Jones, in beatific mood again, plays Mabel (and Katharine Hepburn) at age 90-crotchety and adorable, of course-who looks back over her long life of triumphant liberation (the Channel swim) and conventional class-ridden cowardice (the night she married the alcoholic Boston blueblood instead of running off with the Jewish obstetrician and champion swimmer). “Face it, darling,” says the drunk husband, the rotten stinker, in one of Ms. Howe’s melodramatic showdown scenes out of a romance novel. “You’re still in love with him!”

Ms. Jones also plays Mabel as a giddy 10-year-old (all 10-year-olds played by adults are giddy ), and several other ages of Mabel, including a giddy 20-year-old, a polished 35-year-old socialite and a wise middle-aged widow, in random order as the 90-year-old’s memories come and go. Ms. Jones’ powerful performance has been acclaimed. She can change character with a hairpin, true. But that’s what accomplished actors do. I saw her admired Mabel as too much of a turn-a carefully constructed, calculated and admirable performance in an overpraised play. And the evening left me grumpy, as you can tell.

But why the unlikely cross-dressers in Pride’s Crossing sticking out like sore buns? It’s a fashionable thing to do-a little bit unconventional and “naughty,” so as not to frighten the Lincoln Center subscribers. Ms. Howe’s idea, I assume, is that Mabel’s Bostonian world is bound by social and sexual borders. Hence the woolly notion that an actress playing Mabel’s brother-and playing him badly in an ill-fitting suit and stuck-on mustache-will somehow make the point. It’s an obvious point. But why is the Irish cook, dear old Mary O’Neill, played by a man in drag? Don’t tell me the man within Mary wants to swim free! But again, the male actor playing her doesn’t do too well. Heck, we might as well bring on Milton Berle.

The gender-bending in Pride’s Crossing is foolish; it’s artificial. But in R&J , it astonishes. Because it’s so natural. The gifted cast of the new version of Romeo and Juliet is asking in all simplicity: “Will you pretend with us?” And so we do.