Theater review: `Romeo and Juliet’

Opened May 30, 2009 at the Bruns Amphitheater

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Alex Morf and Sarah Nealis are the star-crossed young lovers in the California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening production of Romeo and Juliet. Photos by Kevin Berne

Youthful passion, ancient hate heat up Cal Shakes’ `R&J’
««« ½

An explosion of color, violence and surprising beauty, the giant splash of graffiti that dominates the cement-heavy set of California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening Romeo and Juliet pretty much says it all.

Designer Neil Patel doesn’t bother with too many scenic flourishes. Two important pieces of furniture – a detailed sculpture of virgin and child and a heavy wooden bed – are on stage at all times, and except for a formal door, the only other opening in the imposing walls is a window platform just perfect for balcony romancing.

The colorful graffiti design, like something that Romeo and his compatriots might wear on a stylish T-shirt, is a youthful burst of energy amid the austerity and dark violence of Verona.

It’s a fitting stage for director Jonathan Moscone’s highly charged, deeply felt production, which opens Cal Shakes’ 35th anniversary season.

The first half of the show, as full of bloody battles as it is heart-melting courtship, is especially riveting. Dave Maier’s fight choreography (which makes great use of violently flung chairs) conveys the tension and drama of the age-old battle between the Capulets and Montagues, while MaryBeth Cavanaugh’s dance choreography – to the pop and dance tunes of Andre Pluess’ sound design – makes the Capulet’s masked ball a fizzy backdrop for Romeo and Juliet to fall in love at first sight.

What makes this production truly connect is Moscone’s choice to make Romeo and Juliet believable teenagers. From the first moments of the show, when we see young Montagues and Capulets with skateboards, iPods and cell phones (in everyday clothes by costumer Raquel M. Barreto), it’s clear that this is a fresh, youthful take on the story. When we meet Romeo (Alex Morf), he’s lovelorn and sappy, sick with love for a girl who has rebuffed him. He lays it on pretty thick, which is why it’s so fun to see his Vespa-driving compatriots Benvolio (Thomas Azar) and Mercutio (Jud Williford) having so much fun at his expense.

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Our first glimpse of Juliet (Sarah Nealis) has her staring out the window (awash in the pink light of Russell H. Champa’s expert design), lost in her iPod.

The two meet and fall in love as teenagers. From the famous balcony scene – as giddily romantic and as deadly serious as I’ve seen – up to the tragic chaos that ends their lives, these young people mature before our eyes, especially Juliet, whose resolve and emotional depth are beautifully conveyed by Nealis.

Catherine Castellanos as Juliet’s nurse nearly steals the show. From her fond, gushing remembrance of nursing Juliet as a baby to her soul-deep aching for her young mistress’ troubles, this nurse is as funny as she is moving. Wiliford’s fiery Mercutio leaves an equally strong impression. He and Castellanos have a memorable interaction, with Mercutio relentlessly teasing the nurse (he even bids adieu to her with a serenade of Styx’s “Lady”), but his best work is alongside his comrades.

The second half of the play, with all its weeping and wailing, can’t match the highs of the first half, obviously. Dan Hiatt is terrific as the helpful Friar Lawrence, and the adult Capulets (James Carpenter and Julie Eccles) and Montagues (L. Peter Callender and Castellanos again) all have powerful moments, but the final tragedy, amid the flickering torchlight of the Capulet tomb, didn’t land as solidly (at least not on a chilly opening night) as the rest of the play.

Still, there are indelible images from this production: the flutter of rose petals through a window, the prodigious puddles of blood under slain Mercutio and Tybalt (Craig Marker) and the sweet, sweet flush of first love between teenagers, whose bond has the power to change the world.


California Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo and Juliet continues through June 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd., Orinda (one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24). Tickets are $20-$63. Call 510-548-9666 or visit for information. There’s a free shuttle to and from the theater and the Orinda BART station.

Cal Shakes maintains quite an interesting blog, taking readers behind the scenes of its productions. Check it out here.

Review: `Twelfth Night’


Alex Morf (left) is Viola disguised as Cesario and Stephen Barker Turner is Count Orsino in the California Shakespeare Theater’s season-ending production of Twelfth Night. Photos by Kevin Berne


Director’s vision weighs heavily on Cal Shakes’ `Twelfth Night’


It’s not often you leave a Shakespeare play and feel like you need to take a shower.

That’s sort of the overwhelming sensation that emanates from California Shakespeare Theater’s season-ending production of Twelfth Night.

What is usually one of Shakespeare’s most moving romantic comedies becomes, in the hands of director Mark Rucker, a bizarre mess of a play that feels like the painful morning after a 12-day bender. Give the director credit for bringing something new to an oft-produced play, but his oppressive directorial vision often gets in the way of the storytelling.

Unlike TheatreWorks’ ’60s hippie version of Twelfth Night last year, Rucker’s production is hardly cute. It takes place in some sort of giant Studio 54 vault (set by David Zinn) with disco balls strewn amid the ultra-mod, abused furniture (you don’t even want to know what’s been happening on those grimy couches). There’s a tacky beach scene photo mural in one corner and a man wearing a bunny suit confined to a cage in another. The lights (by Thom Weaver) range from neon to fluorescent to trance-y-dance-y.

Clint Ramos’ costumes evoke the late ’70s, early ’80s (with the men in tights fighting their own version of the Battle of the Bulge), and the general mood is one of debauched days and degenerate nights – a party that has lasted too long and no one is very happy about it.

This is a heavy layer to impose on Twelfth Night, but Rucker goes even further to complicate matters by having one actor – a game Alex Morf – play both Viola and Sebastian, twins who are separated in a storm-wracked shipwreck. Each thinks the other is dead, and their presence in the kingdom of Ilyria leads to confusion and, ultimately, what is supposed to be an emotional reunion.

The play’s primary focus is on Viola, who, to protect herself in a foreign land, disguises herself as a boy named Cesario and begins working for Count Orsino (Stephen Barker Turner). She falls in love with him, but in this production it’s hard to see why because he’s a miserable, melancholy drunk with no apparent redeeming qualities (though he does sport a nice white tux at play’s end).

Cesario is sent as an emissary of love on the Duke’s behalf to woo the Countess Olivia (Dana Green), who is deep in mourning over her dead brother. Cesario’s wooing is too effective, and she falls in love with a person she thinks is a clever young man.

Olivia’s court is a mess. Her drunken cousin, Sir Toby Belch (Andy Murray) and his idiotic cohort, Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Dan Hiatt), do nothing but drink, carouse and cause trouble. They are aided by the jester Feste (Danny Scheie, adorable in a dress), maid Maria (Catherine Castellanos) and the bunny-suited Fabian (Liam Vincent).

The target of their sozzled wrath is Olivia’s right-hand man, Malvolio, played here with gender-bending mirth by Sharon Lockwood. There has likely never been a Malvolio who looked more ridiculous in yellow stockings and cross-laced garters.

The malicious high jinks practiced by Sir Toby et al come across as particularly mean in this production and its aura of chilly dissoluteness.

There are elements of Rucker’s production that work well – Andre Pluess’ music, for one, though he doesn’t adhere to the ‘70s-‘80s theme much. Scheie’s vocal performance on several songs is mesmerizing, and it’s amusing when Sir Toby begins to sing, and the tune is borrowed from “Now I’m a Believer.” One of the evening’s highlights, in fact, comes in the pre-show number performed by the cast, thanking the production’s sponsors with a tune borrowed from Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.”

Morf is actually very good as Viola and Sebastian – he’s got pluck and passion — but he needed a director with a stronger conception to see him through. All through the nearly three-hour play I was worried about how Rucker would stage the twins’ reunion at the end. Alas, he cheats, and there’s nothing even enjoyably theatrical about it.

In 2001 Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone directed a beautiful, moving Twelfth Night that, it turns out, was the exact opposite of this one. It’s fascinating to see how one play can be so diametrically opposed to itself in the hands of different directors.

Moscone directed a play I felt a deep connection to and admiration for, and Rucker directed a play I’m not even sure I really like.

Twelfth Night continues through Oct. 5 at the Bruns Amphitheater, just off the Shakespeare Festival/Gateway exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda. There’s a free shuttle to and from the theater and the Orinda BART station. Tickets are $32-$62. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

Meet the twins: Alex Morf does `Twelfth Night’

And suddenly, Alex Morf was everywhere.

Not exactly, but it sure seemed that there was the Bay Area theater scene without Alex Morf, and then with him – in a big way.

The wrestler from rural Iowa came to the end of his master’s program at American Conservatory Theater, and his career quite literally took off.

While he was in his final year at ACT, he was cast as the rambunctious little brother in the mainstage production of The Rainmaker. Then, just as he was finishing his MFA, he was cast in the California Shakespeare Theater production of Pericles. Now he’s starring in Cal Shakes’ season-ending show, Twelfth Night, which opens Saturday at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda.

“I don’t know,” Morf says. “I spent the last three years at ACT, and it’s sort of like being kept in captivity. Then, after Rainmaker it just sort of snowballed from there. I’ve been really lucky to work with some really good people and have them want to work with me again.”

One of those repeat customers is director Mark Rucker, who cast Morf in Rainmaker and works with him again in Twelfth Night. It was Rucker’s decision to make this take on Shakespeare’s beloved romantic comedy a little different. Morf is playing both twins: Viola and Sebastian, who get separated in a storm at sea and are then reunited at the end. To survive in a foreign land, Viola disguises herself as a boy and causes all sorts of romantic confusion.

So see if you get that straight: Morf is playing one twin, male. He’s playing another twin, female, who’s pretending to be male.

“This is an actor’s dream,” Morf says. “I happen to be partial to Twelfth Night. I think it’s one of the masterpieces of Western literature, and Viola is one of the most interesting roles in Shakespeare – so strong, so honest, so sincere. She’s put in an impossible, aggravating situation, but it’s enjoyable and wonderful at the same time.”

This is the third time Morf has performed in Twelfth Night. Previously he played Malvolio (at St. Olaf College in Minnesota) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (at Chautauqua in western New York). Nor surprisingly, this is his first stab at Viola (Morf, at right, co-stars with Dana Green as Olivia).

“I’m not someone you look at and say, `Oh, he should be playing women,'” Morf says. “I wrestled in college. I was an athlete and stuff. But really, this is such an amazing challenge. I couldn’t do it with any other director.”

There’s certainly a practical aspect to hiring one actor to play twins: you’re guaranteed the identical twins will be identical and you don’t have to put actors in silly wigs and costumes and hope the audience suspends its disbelief.

Director Rucker also had another reason, as he explained to his star.

“There’s so much about gender in this play and the ambiguity of gender,” Morf says. “In Shakespeare’s time, the play was done with all men, which adds even more layers to the gender issue. The rules of gender in this play are what allow the play to happen. I think Mark had a lot of interest in exploring that.”

So how does a boy from Iowa end up playing a woman in the Bay Area?

In Morf’s case, it begins with parents who were supportive of his creative bent. They took their son to New York to see theater, and not just any theater: Chekhov. By the time he got to college, Morf was going to go the safe political science route, but one day in the library, he got bored.

“I started writing a play for a competition,” he recalls. “I ended up winning with a play called People Like You. I had so much fun writing it, I felt liberated. I decided I needed to be doing something creative and expressive. Haven’t looked back since.”

After a stint in a hit Minneapolis production of The Cradle Will Rock performed in an abandoned Sears building, Morf quit his day job as a high school wrestling coach and started applying to grad schools. He got into the ACT program, which he considers “the best thing I’ve ever done.”

“It’s hard to describe the intensity of the program,” he says. “You start at 9 in the morning and go until 10 at night, pretty much six days a week. You learn a lot about yourself. You learn you have a lot more secrets than you think you do. It’s a great group of people there, and I feel very lucky to have spent three years there.”

After Twelfth Night ends, Morf will do what successful Bay Area actors inevitably do: head to New York.

“I have an agent out there now,” he says. “But I hope I can continue to work out here as well. It does feel like home.”

Twelfth Night continues through Oct. 5 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda, just off Highway 24 at the Shakespeare Festival/Gateway exit, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda. There’s a free shuttle to and from the theater and Orinda BART. Tickets are $32-$62. Call 510-548-97666 or visit