Juliet and Juliet and Juliet

Show #31: Juliet, San Francisco State University, March 12.

The cast of Juliet. Photo by Claire Rice

In between his highly stylized professional shows such as his recent Faust Part 1 and Macbeth at Shotgun Players, playwright/director Mark Jackson returns frequently to his alma mater San Francisco State to direct students in the theater department, as he did last year with his own version of Don Juan. His latest show for SFSU is Juliet, devised along with the cast, in which six women and one man all play Shakespeare’s doomed ingénue Juliet Capulet.

In fact it wound up being eight Juliets, not seven, because cast member Arisa Bega suffered a back injury before the opening, so now she sticks to the spoken bit of her part of the play, sitting at the front of the stage while assistant director Allison Combs steps in to do the movement component. The show involves a lot of tightly choreographed, stylized movements in formation all over the stage, and one less performer would throw off the balance entirely.

In the spot Bega later occupies in the front left corner of the stage, a small TV set quietly plays the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli fim of Romeo and Juliet as the audience enters the old Creative Arts building’s Little Theatre. Entering one by one in matching blue dresses and combat boots, the performers are all primarily Juliet but take on other roles as needed—such as jaded socialite Lady Capulet, two fingers raised high as if holding a cigarette as she runs the Juliets through a drill of ladylike motions.

The piece combines bits of Shakespeare’s text with wholly original spoken riffs on related themes and more abstracted group movements more of the emotion of the play than the literal action of it. Both in the beginning and at the end the actors recite a single text one after another, each in a different language with English saved for last. The Juliets loll around in a heap dreamily asking each other (that is to say, asking Juliet) questions: “Did you ever like another boy?” “Do you believe in forgiveness?” Mai Kou Vang lies perpendicularly across the other Juliets, drifting over them as they roll back and forth on the stage.

One of the simplest and yet most compelling parts is a sequence in which each Juliet steps up to deliver a contemporary first-person anecdote about the first blush of young love (“Who’s the guy with the crazy ‘fro?,” “I hope one day he’ll love me like he loves that corned beef”), all of them funny and sweet and glowing, until the last one segues back into the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet, related in the same casual style. It’s a brilliant transition, and one that captures the giddiness of infatuation better than most productions of Romeo and Juliet I’ve seen.

That same excitement is embodied pricelessly in an delightfully jubilant marching dance to the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)”—one of several group dances that capture a key moment in the play, such as a sad, vulnerable, sultry consummation dance right before Romeo’s banishment and a spasmodic dance of death (to the Magnetic Fields’ “All My Little Words”). The music is marvelously chosen throughout, from Connie Stevens’s “Sixteen Reasons” to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.”

Megan Trout delivers a funny version of the “What’s in a name?” speech as if practicing what she’ll say in a mirror. Meredith (no last name listed) does a marvelous jerky dance in the mechanical style of a music-box ballerina while going through the motions of pretending to agree to the marriage Juliet’s parents have arranged for her.

Charlotte Gulezian plays Romeo to a cluster of Juliets in a marvelously rowdy version of the balcony scene, Gulezian clambering over the audience, before the Juliets turn to the sole male among their number, Dara Yazdani, and draft him to take the part over. “You do it,” they say in unison. Starting as the nurse relating the story, Yazdani does a stunning, bravura solo performance of the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, playing both of them and Benvolio and Romeo to boot.

Sure, some of it’s a little abstruse—if the death of Romeo happened, I must have missed it—but overall Jackson and the cast’s deconstruction of the well-worn Shakespeare classic evokes the raw emotion of the story in a way that only exceptional productions of the original manage to do.

Juliet plays through March 21 at Little Theatre, Creative Arts Building, San Francisco State University, 1600 Holloway, San Francisco. http://creativearts.sfsu.edu

Bonus links: My East Bay Express reviews of Mark Jackson’s Macbeth and Salome and my 2006 San Francisco Chronicle feature on Jackson.

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