Romeo and Juliet is by all means a tragedy. Romeo and Juliet is by all means a love story. The trick is portraying the play as by all means both. The tragedy in Romeo and Juliet is not so much that the lovers die, but that their fates are outside of their control, perhaps firstly because they are star-crossed, but also because they are children trying to live an adult life without proper guidance, and because they are never permitted the opportunity to openly experience the great journey of falling and being in love with each other. This play is different from the other love-speckled tragedies: Othello had and lost his Desdemona; Cleopatra had and lost her Antony. Even Macbeth could be added to this shortlist of love tragedies because in each of these plays, there is also some outside force, independent of the lovers, that dooms them from the start. Romeo and Juliet had and lost—they never had a chance—and they were children at the mercy of the adults in the play. Even if Mercutio and Tybalt had not been slain, Romeo and Juliet would have been kept apart by that ever-elusive ancient grudge between their families. The only thing that, we hope, ends that grudge is Romeo and Juliet’s death—hardly consolation for what could have been.
Jonathan Moscone sets this popular play in the modern day, with a focus on the violence of our time. Unfortunately, it seems violence in this production means the overt use of too many blood pellets, which effectively direct attention away from the concept and pangs of tragedy and focus it on the actors’ ability to effectively squeeze, aim and squirt. I seem to remember this as an issue in Cal Shakes’ 2007 production of King Lear, directed by Lisa Peterson. There, too, the tragedy and emotion was too often lost in a spray of bloody absurdity.
A modern day play calls for modern day dress. This makes sense, but Raquel M. Barreto’s costume design hardly dazzles. These “kids” wear exactly what you’d see in any American high school: tee shirts and hoodies, Romeo sports a pair of Joe’s Jeans, Mercutio a leather jacket; the brightly colored party dresses, while very pretty, would be popular at any local sophomore dance. The Capulets are more formally and showily dressed than the Montagues, with both Tybalt (Craig Marker) and Paris (Liam Vincent) following in three-piece suit.
Neil Patel’s set design is sparse but makes a bold statement, working with Russell H. Champa’s brilliant lighting design of pinks and purples and then tragic reds, casting expertly staged shadows on the walls. A large statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus on one side of the stage stands idle as Juliet’s bed lays idol on the other. There’s a staircase upstage escalating left to right and the backdrop is painted with dramatic graffiti. The staircase permits exits and entrances from above, but also helps the already charming balcony scene between our star-crossed lovers as Alex Morf (Romeo) conjures love’s light wings as he o’erperches the Virgin Mary in order to reach the stairway to the goddess of his idolatry. Morf and Sarah Nealis as Juliet never touch during the balcony scene. The stairs to window ratio places them just out of arm’s reach, and this works to create a sweetness between the two that in later scenes is somewhat soured.
The set design tosses out all kinds of analogies between life and death, creation and creationism, idolatry false and not and the blurry lines that connect them all.
While Morf is a fine enough actor, he’s a tough fit for Romeo. Lines are spoken and only sometimes felt and the connection we need with Romeo and he needs with Juliet is somehow never achieved. Morf’s Romeo is young, emotional, sensitive, and his cracking voice is a nice, although unintentional (I think) touch, but his Romeo is about as exciting and passionate as the costume design. Nealis, on the other hand, is charming and sweet and beautiful and in need of a Romeo to match her and raise her up on this stage.
Choreographer Marybeth Cavanaugh’s measured and boisterous dance scene is a treat and somewhat reminiscent of the passionate dancing in West Side Story, with the colorful dresses spinning and the group choreography entrancing the audience. And Andre Pluess, fresh off Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s 2008 production of Romeo and Juliet, has created yet another great score of music, wavering throughout between explosive passion and sometimes discord versus the tender simplicity of a few notes on the right side of the piano to underscore the painful tenderness and sweetness of young love.
The fire that keeps this production burning comes from Jud Williford as Mercutio, but remember we tragically lose Mercutio at the beginning of Act 3. Williford is troubled, wields a bottle of Jack and a switchblade, delivers his version of “Queen Mab” in a shell-shocked fury of comedy, angst and anger, and dies a death that will perhaps bring the only tears to your eyes in this production about Romeo and Juliet. He need not ride in on a Vespa with Benvolio (Thomas Azar) to make a grand entrance. Williford is a star and his character’s death is a stinging blow to this production.
But there are other good performances. L. Peter Callender doubles as the apothecary and the scene is poignant because Callender is just that good, but mostly because of the staging that places Callender in the same balcony window where Juliet called for her Romeo. Julian Lopez-Morillas as the Prince is a force to be reckoned with, and with as much potency as he brings to the part, one wonders how Verona ever spiraled out of his control. Capulets James Carpenter and Julie Eccles provide the essence of violence in this play more than blood pellets ever could. This ancient grudge—whatever it is— is the cause. What we see onstage is the effect. Along the way, there is the idea that anger begets anger: violence begets violence, and Carpenter is perfect in his role as the father who never listens but screams to be heard. The anger between the Capulets and the Montagues, (L. Peter Callender and Catherine Castellanos, respectively), and within each family is violent and fiery and only teaches Romeo and Juliet to act just as impetuously as their parents. This generational terror is the true message of violence in the play, or at least it should take precedence over the blood pellets.
And while Romeo and Juliet can’t count on their parents to understand, they look to the Friar and the Nurse for guidance. Castellanos doubles as Juliet’s Nurse and while I’m a huge fan of this actress, Castellanos doesn’t go far enough or speak clearly enough in her role as Nurse. She tries to be funny and over the top, but the comedy is more motion than motivated. Her portrayal is predictable and sometimes forgettable. Dan Hiatt as Friar Lawrence is good, but is most memorable in the last few moments of the play when the ideally teary-eyed focus of the audience should be on the dead lovers behind him.
So while the focus is somewhat off and blurred by blood that would have been more suitable for one of last season’s many productions of Macbeth, it’s tough to pardon this show without punishment. With as much talent on and behind this stage, it’s bloody absurdity to have a seated audience at the end the show.