Orinda hills, young lovers captivate in Cal Shakes’ Romeo and Juliet

Jul 07

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Rebekah Brockman is Juliet and Dan Clegg is Romeo in California Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Shana Cooper. Below: Brockman and Clegg infuse new life into the classic balcony scene. Photos by Kevin Berne


What’s immediately striking about California Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet, the second show of the season, is the apparent absence of a set. When the company last dipped into this romantic Shakespearean tragedy (in 2009 – read the review here), director Jonathan Moscone erected an enormous, cement-looking wall scrawled with graffiti to evoke the mean streets of Verona. For this production, director Shana Cooper and designer Daniel Ostling have opted for minimalism to glorious effect.

Ostling has built no walls, only platforms of rough wood, leaving the full beauty of the gold and green Orinda hills to dominate the sightline until the sun sets and Lap Chi Chu’s lights help give the open space on stage some architectural form (the columns of light stretching into the sky to convey a tomb are especially, eerily effective). With so much space to fill, you’d think this cast – also minimalist with only seven actors playing all the roles – might have trouble filling it, but that turns out not to be the case. Somehow the epic feel of the landscape only trains more attention on the flawed, flailing, ferociously romantic people at the heart of this oft-told tale.

Director Cooper has done some heavy trimming of the text so this is a concentrated version of the story, which is at its best in the ramp up to the inevitable tragedy. Dan Clegg as Romeo and Rebekah Brockman as Juliet have charm and chemistry, and it’s not at all unappealing to see them kiss (and kiss…and kiss). Their balcony scene is a real charmer largely because they’re so good at conveying that initial burst of intense joy that comes from young love. Clegg’s happy dance is awfully endearing.

But it’s Brockman’s Juliet who is a revelation in this production. It’s not just that she seems appropriately young (Juliet is not yet 14, after all). She’s a bit of a spoiled rich girl, but even more than that, she’s a force of personality, intelligence and staggering appeal. This is very much Juliet’s story, although Clegg makes it easy to see why she might become so captivated by her young suitor.

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With any R&J, a director gets a chance to shine staging fights between Montagues and Capulets and dances (at the Capulets’ masked ball). The fights are one-on-one (minus the larger ensemble cast to create a brawl) and stylized in a powerful way by Dave Maier that makes full use of sound effects in the sound design by Paul James Prendergast, who also provides a hip, club-ready underscoring (although the DJ station off to the side of the stage seems phony and superfluous, as does the piano off to the other side). The deadly duels between Mercutio (Joseph J. Parks, who in a happier scene moons the audience) and Tybalt (Nick Gabriel) and then between Tybalt and Clegg’s Romeo pack a visceral punch – literally. And the dancing, courtesy of Erika Chong Shuch, is bold and muscular, fun yet powerful. Juliet even has a dance solo as she gears up to her sudden wedding that conveys as much anxious, love-addled joy as a monologue.

Cooper’s cast, which also includes Arwen Anderson (as Benvolio and Lady Capulet), Dan Hiatt (as Lord Capulet and Friar Laurence, the same role he played four years ago) and Domenique Lozano (as Juliet’s Nurse), ranks high on the clarity scale. Even with the actors shifting into different roles (with only minor alterations to Christine Crook’s modern-dress costumes), there’s a sharpness to the storytelling that makes it immediate and emotionally acute. Only at the end, in the beautifully rendered tomb, do the emotions fail to go as deep as they might. The death of the young people seems to have no effect on the battle between their families, thus rendering the tragedy even more tragic than usual.

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

California Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet continues through July 28 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org. Free BART shuttle runs between Orinda BART and the theater.

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