Lock Up Your Teenagers

27. February, 2011 Theater 3 comments

When I heard that Impact Theatre artistic director Melissa Hillman was going to be helming Romeo and Juliet this year, the tag lines started to write themselves in my mind (“never was a story of more whoa”–that sort of thing). Although Impact specializes in new plays, Hillman’s own stagings for the company each year have been fast-paced productions of Shakespeare (or other classics like John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore).

Ara Glenn-Johansen, Jon Nagel, Reggie D. White, Seth Thygesen and David Toda in Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Striving to make the plays as contemporary for her audience as they were for Shakespeare’s, Hillman keeps the language Elizabethan (although greatly cut down) but the aesthetic up-to-the-minute, action-packed and often bloody.  She’s had a female Othello, a 1980s Midsummer, and a Measure for Measure that upturned Shakespeare’s particularly dubious happy ending with a brilliant flurry of unexpected violence.

Hillman’s latest Shakespeare outing has a Russian mafia theme, which is a time-honored way of updating R&J: gangland settings have been used for everything from West Side Story to the bombastic Baz Luhrmann flick. Here again, the gangster part is what’s relevant; there are occasional snippets of spoken Russian, but only one character has an accent. It does afford an excuse for some slick guys in suits with guns, a lot of hand tattoos, and a healthy dose of ultraviolence.

Anne Kendall’s set looks curious at first, with aluminum siding along the bottom half of the walls and marble-looking panels mounted individually along the top half like tile samples. Once we’re finally in the tomb, though, you realize we’ve been there from the start. The moody blues of Jacqueline Steager’s lights and Colin Trevor’s sounds of heartbeats, pouring rain, and loud pounding music give the whole scene a dark, ominous atmosphere.

If you ever went to school, you probably know the story.  Star-crossed lovers. Warring families. Two houses, both alike in dignity, a plague upon ’em. Death, death, death. Hillman’s staging keeps that story stripped down to the bare essentials. It replaces the dialogue of the opening confrontation and wrap-up exposition with wild rumbles overseen by Dave Maier and wordless tableaux that amp up the violence considerably (the production boasts a “blood technician,” Tunuviel Luv). It’s actually a bit of a surprise that there are as many people left standing at the end as there are. Inserted non-Shakespearean one-liners like “Romeo, remember when you had a dick?” get an easy chuckle here and there.

The strength of the Impact production is that it drives home that Romeo and Juliet isn’t really a love story.  It’s a play about headstrong kids doing stupid things, and parents too wrapped up in their own vendettas to nip that nonsense in the bud. The Capulets and Montagues aren’t bad parents because their feuding stands in the way of the greatest love the galaxy has ever known, which is the understanding of the play you might get in middle school. No, in a sense they’re bad parents because they don’t stand in the way nearly enough, because Romeo and Juliet clearly have no business making their own decisions.

When we first meet Romeo he’s moaning over how much he loves the beauty Rosaline, whom we never see. As soon as he sees Juliet he forgets all about Rosaline and moons over Juliet in the exact same way, only this time it’s for a girl who goes just as gaga over him. If this makes him seem fickle, that’s because he is. He’s a teenage boy who easily convinces himself he’s head over heels in love with the slightest encouragement, just as 13-year-old Juliet is easily swept off her feet by the first guy to really come on strong to her.

Luisa Frasconi is a superb and very funny Juliet in that you can really believe she’s a 13-year-old kid reeling with puppy love. She’s loud, giggly, squirmy, hollering, and generally captures all the boisterous awkwardness of the early teens. Michael McDonald’s Romeo aptly captures the kind of achingly earnest teenage boy who takes himself way too seriously, although something about the mild way he talks makes it too easy to zone out during his speeches and lose the sense of what he’s saying. (By and large, though, the cast handles the Shakespearean language pretty well.)

His friends are fun to watch in a way that makes them seem like hell to be around. Marilet Martinez’s boorish, mocking Mercutio, Seth Thygesen’s acerbic Benvolio and costumer Miyuki Bierlein’s easygoing Balthazar raise a ruckus with drunken hollering, brawling and dry-humping that’s amusing but makes them not much more sympathetic than Reggie D. White’s glowering Tybalt. Both parties are so aggressive that nobody’s going to be surprised or saddened when they come to violent ends.

Jon Nagel exudes an amiability as Juliet’s father Capulet that makes his character’s cold-blooded violence in this production hard to believe. Ara Glenn-Johansen is an immaculately poised, haughty Lady Capulet, and Alexander Prather’s unctuous parent-approved suitor Paris is appropriately off-putting.  Jordan Winer makes a take-charge and refreshingly earthy Friar Laurence (I particularly like the way he makes “Holy Saint Francis!” sound like cussing), and Bernadette Quattrone is an especially savvy and amusingly playful Nurse. David Abad’s Prince and David Toda’s Montague come off as the walk-on parts they are with their already brief scenes cut down, but Mike Delaney’s bored Russian gunsel Peter, Joseph Mason’s paranoid drug dealer and 12-year-old Jonah McClellan’s loose cannon henchman make the most of minor roles.

The trouble is that in a way this production’s strength, its stripping away of romantic illusions, is also a weakness. You get a sense that Romeo and Juliet think they’re in love, but they’re so overdramatic and fickle in their emotions that it’s hard to take them seriously. When they’re separated they don’t worry about what each other are going through but throw tantrums about being denied the pleasure of each other’s company.

In that sense, Hillman’s production handles the comedy of the play better than the tragic element. Because it’s hard to sympathize with the characters, the pace seems to drag in the second half as they meander their way to their sad end. Rather than praying that maybe just this once these crazy kids will get their happy ending, you just feel if their undoing is such a done deal, ’twere well it were done quickly. (The conspicuous presence of cell phones in the show also makes the whole bit about long-journeying messengers not getting there in time require a lot of suspension of disbelief.) It’s hard to feel too bad about anything that happens to anyone in this production, because whatever bruising the characters get is just what they were cruising for.

Romeo and Juliet
Through April 2
La Val’s Subterranean
1834 Euclid St.
Berkeley, CA

Show #14 of 2011, attended February 19.

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  1. Terry

    3 / 1 / 2011 5:51 pm

    A few more thoughts about this production:

    So, the parents are making “good decisions” by continuing a violent feud, arranging a marriage for their 13-year-old daughter to a man she doesn’t love and threatening to throw her out into the street when she says “No”? And perhaps they are good role models for the kids in pursuing violent revenge? Yet Juliet and Romeo are making “bad decisions” in innocently loving each other? Yeah! Let’s punish them for being young and innocent! That’s so hip!

    Also, I don’t think it works to have actors speak some lines sincerely (violence) and speak others mockingly, or insincerely (love, tenderness), in this case. Doesn’t that kind of take away antithesis and dramatic tension? Hello?

    By the way, I am sure Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience was well familiar with an aesthetic that was “action-packed and often bloody”, so I don’t see that there is anything at all new or “up to the minute” about staging a Shakespeare play this way.


    • 3 / 8 / 2011 7:29 am

      This is just in regard to the last line of your comment… the fact is, R&J has been produced primarily as a love story at least as long as any of us have been alive. And it’s probably been that way since at least the Victorian era. So in that sense, yeah, it is a bit bold and different to present R&J as a violent and bloody story that gets to the core of what’s really going on in the undercurrents of the play, rather than purely a tragically romantic tale of star-crossed lovers.

      Ergo, using the 16th century as a reason for this staging not being up to the minute is rather a straw dog.


  2. 3 / 8 / 2011 10:08 pm

    Well said, well written, good stuff…





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