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Teen love Brazen-Faced Varlets give Shakespeare an entertaining twist

Teenagers.

What would we ever do without their noise? Their whining, their neediness, their back-door kisses and late-night shenanigans. Their stubborn declarations of life's truths. When will they learn that it's all about love?

Ramona and Juliet know this. They're the renegade lovers that spin their Shakespearean cousins around for the modern age (read: They're lesbians). In "Ramona and Juliet," a revival from the scrappy Brazen-Faced Varlets, we see what teenage lesbians sound like in stylish Italy, in another century.

Before you think the Varlets are going for political commentary, rest assured this "Ramona and Juliet" is little more than a spoof.

Jenny Gembka, our Juliet, is feisty. Her nagging, mostly to her mother's chagrin, ranges from finely tuned to annoying. When she falls madly in love with Maria Nicole Held's Ramona, she evinces a ladylike refinement. But Ramona isn't soft. She's got a knife, and she knows how to use it.

Gembka and Held are great together, each showing off comedic abilities with ease and timing. (Even if those abilities are often saved for the behind-the-shade sex scenes, the audio of which renders said shade completely useless. )

But while our lovebirds are excellent, the supporting cast takes the cake. Kelly M. Beuth and Lara D. Haberberger play a dozen or so characters between them. They also co-direct this play, which is a remounting of the group's 2006 inaugural production at the Infringement Festival. This revival, which swaps in new young lovers (Haberberger played Juliet last time), does a lot in the tiny back room of Rust Belt Books.

Beuth takes Brooklyn-kitchen matriarchy and plants it in fair Verona, where Jewish guilt would probably be at home. Beuth is one of those actresses who enunciates a lot, meaning she spits a lot, meaning she's really fun to watch. There aren't many actresses in town that would chew and, quite literally, spit out a scene with her tenacity, dedication and verbal assault. This is how Shakespearean actors were trained in the arenas of their day: Use your body, project your voice and emote, emote, emote.

Haberberger is the fatherly one. Her brutish ways are comedic, but not for ha-has. Her humor comes more often in the absurdity of her gestures and deeper voice, which, while not foreign to the actress's demeanor, are certainly out of character.

While you can excuse Shawn Northrip's script for not saying more, it does feel slightly amiss. Might it be that this audience doesn't need an education in queer adolescence -- romantic or tragic -- any more than it needs a reinterpretation of the world's most universal romantic tragedy? Even if Shakespeare's flexibility is his greatest gift, it should be flexed a little more.

Then again, that salient truth about teenagers being teenagers being teenagers, no matter the time, place or face, screams the loudest. They do know what love is, after all; more than any of the adults do. Their ending, while romantic in only a classical way, is ultimately the only thing that this interpretation can't avoid. Their demise is as ironically hopeful as ever, as seriously loud and proud as ever.

> THEATER REVIEW

"Ramona and Juliet"

Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

WHEN: Through June 2

WHERE: Presented by the Brazen-Faced Varlets in Rust Belt Books, 202 Allen St.

TICKETS: $12

INFO: 885-9535