“Romeo and Juliet,” Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed young lovers, has always been understood, paradoxically, as a story of hope and not merely a tragedy. Although the two young people both die by suicide, the inspiration of their love yet shines as a beacon calling the families (and the viewing audience) to reconciliation and a brighter vision for the future.
Inspired by this hopeful vision, playwright/adapters KJ Sanchez and Karen Zacarías have created a version of the play which extends this hope into our current complex communities, crossing barriers of language, culture and sexuality to make the story more deeply accessible to all. It celebrates a hope for developing a theatre, an art form, a vision that is ever more visionary and welcoming.
It is a difficult juggling act to tell the story of Shakespeare’s hapless teens and their feuding families while simultaneously making a modern, somewhat political call to hope for the future of all humanity. In this reviewer’s opinion, the juggling act is an unequivocal success.
Yes, it is jarring to hear Shakespeare’s poetry interspersed with Spanish as the actors jump from language to language. Yes, it is unexpected and perhaps awkward to encounter a lesbian Romeo with whom Juliet unexpectedly falls in love. And it is clearly an historical anachronism for the sympathetic friar to bless their union as he observes, with a delightful comic shrug, that “amor es amor!”
So what? That’s the point. We can take a classic play and push it around to do the job it is supposed to do: inspire hope! These minor difficulties and confusions are nothing when compared to the broader vision at stake, a vision that Shakespeare would surely celebrate, a vision at the heart of Romeo and Juliet: we can do better.
Do not imagine that I am suggesting that Shakespeare’s poetry and story are given short shrift at the expense of making these points. They are not. The performances here are as fine as what we have come to expect, consistently, from California Shakespeare Festival. CalShakes knows how to play the Bard, and nothing is sacrificed here.
I should particularly call out the extraordinary performances of Sarita Ocón and Gianna DigregorÍo as Romeo and Juliet, considering the fact that DigregorÍo stepped unexpectedly into the role of Juliet only two nights before the play’s opening. Despite this situation the necessary chemistry between Romeo and Juliet was fully realized, and DigregorÍo’s performance, even with script at hand, left nothing to be desired. She was glorious, and will no doubt be even better as the run continues.
Also worth mentioning is the wonderful Orlando Arriga as the Friar (among other roles). He delights!
If you wonder whether a bilingual, lesbian version of Romeo and Juliet somehow compromises the authenticity of Shakespeare’s play, please relax and take a chill pill.
“Romeo y Juliet” is as fine a telling of the story as you are ever likely to see.
Go, celebrate, cry a bit, and leave the theatre full of hope. What more could you ask?
“Romeo y Juliet” continues at California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda through June 19. For further information, click here.
Rating: **** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.
“Romeo y Juliet” by William Shakespeare, adapted by Karen Zacarîas and Sarita Ocón. Produced by California Shakespeare Festival. Director: Sarita Ocón. Scenic Designer: Tanya Orellana. Costume Designer: Jesse Amoroso. Lighting Designer: Russell H. Champer. Sound Designer: Madeleine Oldham. Resident fight director: Dave Maier. Intimacy Director: Maya Herbsman. Wig/Hair/Makeup Designer: Jessica Carter.
Juan Manuel Amador*, Orlando Arriaga*, Wilma Bonet*, Hugo Carbajal*, Eliana Lopez, Gianna Digregorio Rivera*, Brady Morales-Woolery*, and Sarita Ocón* (*=member, actor’s equity)