Arts & Events

Cal Shakes’ Contemporary ‘Romeo and Juliet’

By Ken Bullock Special to the Planet
Thursday June 11, 2009 - 07:18:00 PM

Under the Orinda sky, the stage at the Bruns Amphitheatre is dominated by a bed, a crowned statue of the Virgin with child on a plinth, and a stairway adorned with bright tagging, as if it were an Expressionist sunset. Through these urban markers, old and new, the action of Cal Shakes’ production of Romeo and Juliet will pour, interrupted by its famous tableaux of balcony, bedroom and tomb, young love and death. 

The conceit, to use a word of Elizabethan issue, of coupling Shakespeare’s play of two feuding Renaissance clans with present-day youth culture isn’t brand-new. Mercutio’s bawdy swagger down the streets of Verona is here abetted by a Vespa in the aisles. There’s contemporary dancing at the Capulets’ ball, nicely choreographed by Marybeth Cavanaugh. There’s a constant youthful sense, if not always one of danger, of trespassing in a world where someone else makes the rules. In this production, it’s a little too suburbanite; “permissive,” as the media would insist. A complex more than a sensibility increasingly capable of discovery amid the specters of both childhood dependence and impending post-adolescent conformity.  

With Jonathan Moscone’s direction and the estimable dramaturgical commitment of Philippa Kelly, the show is clear and articulate, well-delineated—the sometimes carnavalesque comedy of the first half, until Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo Tybalt, followed by the relentless tragic dislocation and sense of loss and mourning, accentuated by youth and the vividness of fresh experience of the second—underscores what Kelly notes as the Bard’s sense of the evanescence of love, beauty, the productions of time.  

It also allows the cast to display some excellence in their craft. Besides convincing portrayals by the young lovers (Alex Morf and Sarah Nealis), Catherine Castellanos earns applause for her game, bawdy Nurse, Jud Williford makes a charming and ribald Mercutio, Julian Lopez-Morillas an engaged and engaging Prince, and—best of all—James Carpenter as Capulet goes from indulgent patriarch, blocking Tybalt (Craig Marker) menacing Romeo (“He shall be endured”), to self-righteous tyrant, forcing unxious, insistent Paris (Liam Vincent) on his only child, whose lovelorn longings are elsewhere. And this passes over good characterizations and moments by others in a big cast.  

The clarity of articulation is undermined by arch overaccenting, which impedes the flow of the language, the turnover and accumulation of the lines, like too much business dispells meaning from movement and gesture. There’s a sense of dancing around the play, ornamenting it instead of discovering its real poetry. Shakespeare is elusive, as furtive at heart as the theme of evanescence, like the white deer of truth Herman Melville said flashed from tree to tree, never seen exactly in the tragedies. Moscone’s production skillfully resets and retells the plot, but doesn’t get to the gist of the story, nor the impulse that inspired the same poet to such later reflections on love as Othello and Antony and Cleopatra. 



Romeo and Juliet 

Bruns Amphitheater: 100 Gateway Blvd., Orinda. Tuesday–Sunday, through Sunday, June 21, times vary. $20–$63. depending on day.