Reviewed by Judy Richter
One reason why the plays of William Shakespeare have survived and thrived for some four centuries is their beautiful language. Another is the eternal nature of their central themes. Both are clearly seen in the California Shakespeare Theater season-opening production of "Romeo and Juliet." Artistic director Jonathan Moscone has staged it in modern-day dress (costumes by Raquel M. Barreto), thus emphasizing its timeliness.
The setting on the outdoor stage is Verona, Italy, but it could be any city that suffers from gang violence. In this case, the "gangs" are the Capulets and Montagues, two noble families that have a bitter rivalry that spills into the streets. Very early in the play, the younger members of the two families meet on the street, exchange insults, and before you know it, a fight breaks out. Remaining true to the text, swords become switch blades rather than today's weapon of choice, guns. Still, the fighting later ends in bloodshed and death.
In the meantime, two impetuous teenagers -- nothing new there -- meet and fall in love. Unfortunately for them, 13-year-old Juliet (Sarah Nealis) is a Capulet, while young Romeo (Alex Morf) is a Montague. It takes their tragic deaths to move the warring families to reconciliation.
Neil Patel's set (with lighting by Russell H. Champa) is dominated by a graffiti-scarred wall with a staircase and one opening to accommodate the balcony scene. Furnishings are minimal: a bed, a statue of the Virgin Mary and some chairs. The younger generation wears clothing that would blend in on almost any high school campus today, while their elders wear business attire.
Nealis is an appealingly girlish Juliet with emotions evolving from giddiness to determination. Her Romeo, Morf, is less effective as Romeo, especially as the play continues and he expresses his sorrows in a high, whiny voice. Featured as Romeo's younger relatives are Jud Williford as a skinhead Mercutio and Thomas Azar as the the more rational Benvolio. Juliet's younger relatives are led by Craig Marker as Tybalt, who wears a business suit like the elders but who seems to be a ringleader in the troubles. Her family-approved suitor, Liam Vincent as Paris, also wears business attire. In this interpretation, he seems to have more of a dark side than seen in some other productions, where he's more benign.
The elders are solid throughout the cast with Julian López-Morillas trying to keep peace as the Prince, Dan Hiatt as the kindly Friar Lawrence, Romeo's spiritual adviser and ally to the young couple; Catherine Castellanos as Juliet's nattering Nurse and in the smaller role of Lady Montague; and L. Peter Callender as Montague. James Carpenter is a forceful Capulet, who turns from loving father to tyrant as he tries to force Juliet to marry Paris. Julie Eccles is well paired with him as Lady Capulet. The sound is by Andre Pluess, with Marybeth Cavanaugh serving as choreographer and Dave Maier as fight director.
Moscone directs with a sure hand. In one of his more interesting moves, he overlaps the scenes when Friar Lawrence tells Romeo and the Nurse tells Juliet that Romeo has been banished for slaying Tybalt. It emphasizes how much the two youngsters love each other as well as their youthful inability to see beyond the emotion of the moment.