Performing Arts: Theater
February 12, 2020
Well into Act 2 of Mark Saltzman’s Romeo and Bernadette, Tito Titone, fiancée to the latter titular character, is taking one of those pre-wedding dance lessons. The teacher is played, in drag, by Troy Rucker, dressed like an old Russian ballet mistress – all the more humorous given the additional disparity of skin color to gender expression.

Rucker’s character is teaching Titone the Cha Cha, and yet references her having been a principle dancer with Martha Graham. Titone, about to marry into a mob family, threatens her with a pistol to end the lesson, to which she pulls out a rifle, which “BELONGED TO MARTHA GRAHAMMM.”

Now, this is all happening in a vague 1960. It is certainly conceivable for someone who had danced with Graham at the beginning to be the general upper middle age Rucker has been directed into playing. I’m sure there were Graham dancers who could Cha Cha. She could just be a crazy New Yorker! At any rate, by the time we enter this level of thought, the play has long since ended.

This is the general modus operandi of Romeo and Bernadette – well-executed levity stemming from a thought experiment about which you must coach your brain to not think critically whatsoever: 1960 community theatre production of Romeo and Juliet happens.

In the audience is a couple; the girl, being emotional, is made emotional by the production, spoiling her desire to go home and make nookie with the boy. Wanting nookie, boy convinces girl that the story continues, spinning a tale of Romeo’s poison having been a sleeping potion from which he wakes up in 1960’s Verona, where Italian- American mob family the Penzas is on vacation.

Romeo is convinced, upon seeing their daughter, Bernadette, that she is Juliet. He follows them back to Brooklyn, but is taken in by warring mob family, the Del Cantos (sensing an analog yet?). Given that the show is written to be an improvised fib told by a desperate young man, the plot’s occasional lapses in logic are aesthetically excusable.

What I can’t stop thinking about is the casting of Rucker, who plays the role of “convenient brown person” in almost every scene – A theatre usher, a bellhop, an opera star, a southern minister who somehow ended up in Brooklyn, a gay flower shop owner, a female wedding dress designer, and the above mentioned Cha Cha teaching Graham alum.

Were these shallow bit parts written to be played by the same person? Did they think casting one black actor as many characters was a sensible alternative to actual diversity in casting an otherwise white story? I don’t suppose they intended for us to think too hard about that one, either.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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