Review: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at CalShakes

(Charles Kruger)

Rating: *****

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Romeo and Juliet” plays at California Shakespeare’s Bruns Amphitheater  in Orinda from July 3 through July 28, 2013).

Director Shana Cooper gives us a stripped down “Romeo and Juliet”, with a bare stage, simple but effective costumes, and only seven actors playing all the parts. It works beautifully due to the clarity of the language, enthusiastic staging and choreography, and excellent acting from everyone.

The play opens with all of the company on stage, moving in what is nearly a dance, hip hop inspired. It sets a young, enthusiastic tone very effectively. From the opening beat, the actors present themselves directly to the audience as actors, not characters. The effect, which reminded me of Godspell, is of a troop of innocents telling the story of the tragedy rather than a straightforward recreation of the events. This approach allows for most of the play to be presented with great humor and laughter, which allows us to experience the all-too-familiar tragedy, when it comes, as a new discovery.

Dan Clegg’s Romeo is a kind of hipster sophisticate, not too bright, fashionably shallow, stylish and easy on the eyes.

Dan Clegg (Romeo) and Rebekah Brockman (Juliet) in Cal Shakes’ Romeo & Juliet, directed by Shana Cooper; photo by Kevin Berne.
Dan Clegg (Romeo) and Rebekah Brockman (Juliet) in Cal Shakes’ “Romeo & Juliet”, directed by Shana Cooper. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

This approach to the play would carry a lot of lightweight charm and, perhaps, shortchange the poetry too much, were it not for the astonishing, rich, brilliant and highly original Juliet offered by Rebekah Brockman. If Romeo is shallow, Brockman’s Juliet is anything but. This characterization is superb in every direction. Firstly, this Juliet is, indeed, perhaps thirteen years old, and Brockman captures the age of this child-woman perfectly. Then, she is brilliant with a keen wit, easy laughter (though prone to excessive giggling like any thirteen-year-old) and a gift for comedy. No doubt, Brockman is a skilled comedienne herself, but Juliet’s humor is not a put on. Brockman has created a young girl who is full of insight, intellect, painfully acute sensitivity, and good fun. When Romeo sees her and instantly forgets Rosalind, he does not appear shallow. Just the opposite. It is a moment when Romeo is saved from himself and becomes something more than the shallow hipster we met at first, as he recognizes what a remarkable girl is Juliet. Their chemistry together is marvelous, and their love scenes are played easily and effortlessly. (Hard core Shakespeare aficionados,though, may miss some of the poetry in this heavily cut rendition.)

Clearly, Juliet absolutely owns this production, but she is well supported by a more than capable cast, each having an opportunity to shine, especially in multiple rules. Dan Hiatt is most impressive as Juliet’s tyrannical father Lord Capulet and offers a beautiful contrast playing the Friar as well. Arwen Anderson makes the most of the somewhat overshadowed Lady Capulet and Domenique Lozano is comically effective as the nurse. Nick Gabriel brings the right note of creepiness to Paris, Juliet’s other suitor. Joseph J. Parks is very fine as the poetic Mercutio, handling the difficult language of the famous Queen Mab speech with fine clarity and psychological truth.

The production details of dance, fight choreography, music, costumes, lights, and set are all effective in moving the story along and moving the viewer emotionally.

This production does what “Romeo and Juliet” should do: enchant, excite, amuse and ultimately bring us to tears. This is as good a version as you are likely to see for some time to come.

For further information, click here.

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“Romeo and Juliet”, by William Shakespeare, produced by Cal Shakes. Director: Shana Cooper. Set Design: Daniel Ostling. Costume Design: Christine Crook. Lighting Design: Lap Chi Chu. Composer/Sound Design: Paul James Prendergast. Movement: Erika Chong Shuch. 

Benvolio/Lady Capulet/Ensemble: Arwen Anderson. Juliet: Rebekah Brockman. Romeo: Dan Clegg. Tybalt/Paris/Ensemble: Nick Gabriel. Friar/Lord Capulet/Peter/Ensemble: Dan Hiatt. Nurse/Prince/Ensemble: Domenique Lozano. Mercutio/Apothecary/Ensemble: Joseph J. Parks.

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