University troupe portrays transgender Romeo in modern take of “Romeo And Juliet”

PORTLAND, Oregon — Rusty Tennant, director of Pacific University’s production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” is presenting a unique interpretation of the tragic love story.

Verona is a contemporary high school instead of a city; Lord Capulet is its principal, and Friar Lawrence a counselor of the eager-youth-group-leader type. A handful of the characters are transgender, including Romeo, born biologically female who identifies as male.

Tennant, artistic director of Fuse Theatre Ensemble in Portland, said his biggest challenge producing “Romeo and Juliet” is audience expectations.

”Most everybody has to read it in high school,” he said. “If a person has only seen one Shakespeare play, it is probably this one, and everyone has their expectations of what they should see. Satisfying those expectations and then elevating them is a real challenge. I think we’ve created something relevant, current, and exciting while still honoring the play’s classical roots.”

Setting the play in a contemporary world allowed Tennant to portray a cisgender female as Romeo and retain all of the masculine terminology that is traditionally attributed to the role. Tackling the role of Romeo is senior Kailea Saplan.

“She was the best actor to walk into the room,” Tennant said. “I knew she could handle it. And I wasn’t wrong. She may be the best Romeo I have ever seen. She is a force of nature and has made everyone who shares the stage with her better through her performance and rehearsal demeanor.”

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