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: `The Triumph of Love’

Opened Aug. 11, 2007, Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda

More love, less triumph in Cal Shakes-San Jose Rep co-production
two [1/2] stars Romance trumps comedy

In the theater, there’s nothing worse than feeling on the outside of a joke. Members of the audience chortle happily while you sit there stony faced and cranky wondering why the onstage antics delight some but only serve to annoy you.

Such was my fate at The Triumph of Love, a co-production of California Shakespeare Theater and San Jose Repertory Theatre that opened Saturday night (so far this so-called summer, Cal Shakes is three for three with bone-chilling opening-night weather).

Having seen and loved Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux’s The Triumph of Love when Stephen Wadsworth adapted and directed it in 1993 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, I was looking forward to revisiting the play. TheatreWorks produced the musical version, which drops the “the” from the title (rather than add an exclamation point, one supposes), in 2001, but it seemed like a different play entirely.

Director Lillian Groag’s new adaptation (working from a translation by Frederick Kluck) attempts to temper the sharp-edged romance of the story with the spirit of Italian commedia dell’arte that inspired Marivaux. I’m all for the romance — especially when it gets thorny and dark — but the commedia stuff left me (literally) in the cold.

Most of the comedic duties fall to Danny Scheie as Arlechino and Ron Campbell as Dimas, a gardener. Scheie is like an Italianate Tigger — he’s bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy, fun, fun, fun, fun. Except he’s not all that fun. He jettes across the stage with zest, but his seemingly mentally challenged character is nothing more than silliness in a hat.

Campbell’s gardener is a riff on Larry the Cable Guy — so much so I expected him to interject a “Git-R-Done!” here and there. At one point, Scheie and Campbell are involved in a lengthy pantomime, and though I watched attentively, I had absolutely no idea what they were doing. None at all.

I was much more interested in the love quartet at the story’s center.

Stacy Ross is Princess Leonide, whose goal it is to get the handsome young Prince Agis (Jud Williford) to fall in love with her. The match will mend old family feuds and restore the prince to his rightful throne.

But to win the prince’s affections, Leonide must disguise herself as a man and infiltrate his sequestered court. With the help of her lady in waiting (Catherine Castellanos, a marvelous actor, squandered in an Ethel Mertz role), Leonide gains access to the home of Hermocrates (Dan Hiatt), a great philosopher and teacher/guardian to the prince.

The challenge will be to get Hermocrates and his sister, Leontine (Domenique Lozano), to allow her (aka him) to stay long enough for her to woo Agis. Turns out Leonide is quite adept at slinging the ol’ BS, especially in the ways of love.

She convinces Leontine, a somewhat hardened soul, that “he” is in love with her. Leontine melts under the handsome young “man’s” attentions. Hermocrates is a little harder to crack. He sees right through the princess’ male disguise, so Leonide convinces the old philosopher that she donned the costume to win his affections.

In her spare time, when she’s not deluding the older folks, the princess lures the prince’s affection, first as a friend (and fellow dude) then as a woman.

As Leonide throws her love around like promises at a presidential debate, Kate Edmunds’ set (which features shag-carpeted shrubs at one side and an unattractive rear wall that’s meant to indicate the harsh, ugly world outside Hermocrates’ gates) begins sprouting red flowers. The same is true for Raquel Barreto’s gorgeous period costumes — the more in love the characters become, the more red flourishes appear on their costumes.

With all the red, I wondered if this was a comedy or an effort to fight AIDS in Africa.

Director Groag has a hard time blending elements here, and the actors, especially during the so-called comic bits, struggle to make sense of it all. A sense of spontaneity is overwhelmed by work that feels tightly programmed and full of effort. Perhaps this will soften by the time the production moves to San Jose next month.

What works here — amid the cartoon sound effects and the totally uncharming cupid peeing fountain — is Ross’ central performance. She carries the production on her able back and receives stalwart support from Williford, Hiatt and Lozano, all of whom come alive — in comic and dramatic ways — in their scenes with Ross.

There’s some serious exploration of love here, and the “happy ending” is actually fairly sad, which is mightily interesting. It’s just too bad that so much of this Triumph is so mightily silly.

For information about The Triumph of Love visit

Review: `Richard III’

opened June 2, 2007, Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda

Villainy rules in Cal Shakes’ masterful Richard III
three [1/2] stars A Richard to remember

This smart, funny man can’t be all bad, can he?

When we meet the man who will become King Richard III in California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening Richard III, we’re completely charmed by him.

As he sheds his armor, we notice his right arm hangs limply at his side, while the hump on his back and his uneven legs have left his body twisted. But his self-deprecating wit — “…so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them” — disarms us.

That’s the trick. He can make us laugh with the way he says one silly word (“lute”), but then, just as we’re basking in his glow, he tells us something important. “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain.”

As played by Reg Rogers, making his Cal Shakes debut, Richard immediately has the audience on his side, which is key in any production of Richard III. Horrible things happen because of Richard — beheadings, betrayals, fratricide, to name a few — but we like him. We really like him. It takes most of the play and a staggering body count to make us finally admit that he really is a bad egg.

At Saturday’s chilly, fog-enshrouded opening-night performance in Orinda, the audience was fully taken in by Rogers’ Richard, and that’s a sure sign of success for director Mark Rucker.

The production may be three hours, but it doesn’t feel long because Rucker moves things along at a startling pace and keeps our focus intently trained.

Erik Flatmo’s set is all rough, raw plywood and utility lights (a whole lot of utility lights, fluorescent and otherwise) as if to let us know that we’re in a kingdom in such turmoil that nothing ever gets finished. This is the time, after all, of the War of the Roses, the thorny battle between the houses of York and Lancaster to get their kings on the throne.

The warring families are so weary of fighting, and their numbers so decimated, the moment is ripe for an ambitious egoist to seize the moment and catapult himself onto the throne. That’s exactly what Richard does, putting his brother in prison and then having him murdered, taking allies into his confidence and then turning on them, and, most famously, murdering two boy princes in the Tower of London.

Rogers’ charming ferocity and his keen physicality (Richard often looks like he’s dancing or skipping, when really he’s just trying to remain upright) carry the evening without question. His Richard carries us willingly into the heart of evil, and except for all the blood and horror, it’s an enjoyable place to be.

The rest of the cast — outfitted in flowing robes by costume designer Katherine Roth — is excellent but can’t quite wrest the spotlight away from Richard, and that’s only right.

There are exceptions. Catherine Castellanos as the ousted Queen Margaret, widow of King Henry VI, makes two memorable appearances. The first time we see her, she’s raving and cursing like a mad woman. The second, she is part of a quartet of spurned queens — Lorri Holt as Queen Elizabeth, Susannah Livingston as Richard’s wife, Anne, and Sharon Lockwood as Richard’s mother — who find strength in their shared misery and resolve to fight the tyranny.

Rucker’s production begins with Kay Starr’s 1952 hit “Wheel of Fortune,” which brings a smile before the villainy begins. But that pop song becomes the play’s theme, and in one brilliant scene, Richard even sings it himself.

Political villainy is timeless, as Shakespeare knew, and Cal Shakes’ vivid, engrossing Richard III reminds us that the really bad guys — the ones with charm and intelligence — can make us laugh and slice us in half between chuckles.

For information about Richard III, visit