Review: Romeo is Not the Only Fruit
A sparsely adorned stage, three queer actors of colour (Pallavi Waghmode, Sasha Chong, and Nisha Joseph) as potential wise crones strike poses reminiscent of Destiny’s Child, though they function largely as bawdy Shakespearean chorus wit and cheek throughout Jean Tong’s musical production, Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit.
Our chorus members are dressed in white, with one of the three words mentioned above emblazoned on their chests to remind, caution, and subtly critique the fate of queer bodies in popular cultural narratives. It also, coincidentally, echoes a sentiment in a Shakespearean sonnet, ‘desire is death’. Throughout the performance, they change characters as required for different scenes, with minimal props and fuss.
The two leads, Juliet (Margot Tanjutco) and Darcy (Louisa Wall) cross paths after Juliet loses coins to a retro game machine at an arcade. Darcy has recently moved to Verona, and offers Juliet spare change when she notices her struggling with the machine eating her money. We learn that they both live on the same street, though Darcy is reluctant to admit to what has brought her to Verona. Brief glimpses prior to their meeting suggest dead lovers have prompted the move. Juliet begs Darcy to come to family dinner as thanks and welcome, and initial awkward mutual crush sparks fly.
Is Darcy actually our token Romeo? Juliet harbours desires of becoming a pilot, and to not settle for any of the supposedly wonderful single young men her mother has trotted out to secure the continuation of their familial pedigree. She very shyly admits this to Darcy, who is confused about why Juliet doesn’t chase this ambition head-on. Her family have other plans, and it’s tricky: she wants to find personal fulfilment but it might not fit what her mother and grandmother want for her. The absence of acknowledgement of Juliet’s potential as a complex human who may have very little in common with her family, blood aside, borders on sociopathic. Yet the strength of this production lies precisely in presenting these details to the public: the matrilineal power dynamic interplay when the chorus switch characters to portray Juliet’s mother and grandmother, the hamming up of racial and cultural tropes, particularly by conflating them into a weird pan-Asiatic mélange that seems straight out of a 1990s Family Circle ‘Chinese’ cookbook.
Tanjutco explains that by conveying these cringe-inducing moments, permission to be amused and be emotionally invested in the narrative is welcomed: “I want people enjoy themselves, then recognise that we are hurting, that our people and communities are hurting, but we are still creating work that is full of hope.”
The cast occupies a modest stage, and are female-identifying. We don’t even get to check out the rejected bachelors that Juliet’s mother fawns over. It’d be hard to pick just one musical number to single out, but people were demonstrably rolling in their chairs when Juliet’s mum demonstrates how best to fold dumplings, oblivious to the notion she is also unintentionally showing aptitude for a covert primer on female pleasure. The stage props aren’t overly sophisticated, and didn’t need to be. The chorus invites the audience to notice ‘clumsy’ scene transitions as mimicking actual living, as opposed to effortless, over-rehearsed perfection – conveying emotion and feeling is key.
Most of us are roughly familiar with the plot of Romeo and Juliet, but this musical romp jolts us off our classic diegetic expectations. An example is when the chorus resurface at the finale but rip off their bland white uniform for deliciously gaudy disco attire (spoiler: sequins!). The play finishes far too soon, and invites its audience into the (labial?) folds – to celebrate with them, rather than to watch clinically and isolate or contain viewer exuberance. I’d like to think that this was a collective rejoicing (Wed 15/11/17, Melbourne, Butterfly Club), after the announcement of results of the nationwide marriage equality survey.
Heterosexual normativity and monogamy, if viewed as shackles in which to imprison the sexual reproductive-focussed potential of the body, depends on transactional-dependent narratives where desire is invalid if it does not secure its continued progression. Having creative work and safe spaces to explore and share these reflections is essential. It won’t always be easy choosing paths your parents may prefer for you, and you’re not alone in rejecting it, remixing it, shaping it to fit authentically. Cheering til hoarse while admiring 50s-style fringe quiffed-femmes do dead-on pisstakes of your Asian relatives while you carve out your thoughts on experimental art gallery installations can be part of that package.
Photo credit: Bede McKenna
Gemma Mahadeo is a queer Melbourne-based writer, poet, and occasional musician. She regularly reviews book-and-beer matches for Froth magazine, and loves watching the faces of folks morph in confusion when she explains she is from the U.K. You can find her online as (Twitter & Instagram) @snarkattack & @eatdrinkstagger.