Romeo and Juliet
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
California Shakespeare Theater
May 27-June 21, 2009
Photo: Kevin Berne
It’s in-your-face Shakespeare – loud and messy, with brawling teenagers taking over the streets like the Sharks and the Jets in Leonard Bernstein’s famous Broadway spin-off. Jonathan Moscone has conceived a “Romeo and Juliet” for our times without sacrificing either the beauty or the dignity of Shakespeare’s words. It is a wonderfully realized conception of Shakespeare’s most beloved romance that will be clear as a bell to those new to the Bard and offend only the most confirmed purist in the audience.
From the moment that the lights go up on Neil Patel’s stunner of a set, with a splashy graffiti design against the back wall, you know you are not in your grandmother’s Verona. It’s not only the modern dress – jeans, hoodies and tank tops for the kids – suits and designer dresses for their parents (costumes by Raquel M. Barreto) but a host of other devices that give this “Romeo” its contemporary feel. Switchblades replace swords and, in one notable departure from tradition, Tybalt is beaten to death with a chair. The Montagues arrive at the Capulet ball on motorcycles, people talk on cell phones and, when there is music, it really rocks.
Not only does all this work within the context of the play, it tends to illuminate it. Lines are spoken conversationally and meanings, even to those who think they have seen it all (a dozen or more times), emerge in a new and fresh way. For example: traditional readings of the famous “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” line lead the listener to think Juliet is seeking her love. But when Sarah Nealis muses upon it at her balcony window, with the accent strongly on the “wherefore,” you suddenly realize that she means “Why are you Romeo?” with the following lines supporting that reading. Old Capulet’s tirade against his daughter, masterfully delivered by James Carpenter, could be any enraged father’s rebuke of a rebellious child, no longer confined to the narrow context of a particular time. The looks exchanged by Carpenter and Julie Eccles as his wife tell volumes about the state of the Capulet marriage.
There are many wonders in this production, chief among them Jud Williford’s wise-ass Mercutio, Dan Hiatt’s bumbling Friar Lawrence and Catherine Castellanos’ gossipy nurse, elevating those secondary roles to a new prominence. Nealis delivers a lovely Juliet who genuinely could be 13. Alas, would that she had a more fitting Romeo. But Alex Morf is not the man. Morf’s Romeo is whiny and kvetchy, a real crybaby from beginning to end. The actor delivers his lines in a monotonous sing-song that can drag down an otherwise-soaring scene.
It’s hard to see why his buddies are so loyal to him, let alone how Juliet becomes smitten. If I were she I would go for Mercutio or the dapper Count Paris (Liam Vincent) who is the choice of her parents. Even Benvolio (Thomas Azar), another member of the Montague gang, would be a more energetic choice. Morf looks young enough for the role but that’s about all he has going for him. It was an unfortunate casting choice but it’s not enough to mar this splendid show.