As a young actor at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I remember that sometimes there would be audience members sitting in the front row with a book in their laps following in the text as the play unfolded. Often there would be a flurry of fluttered pages as they tried to catch up where some lines had been cut. I wonder what these purists would think of the new production of Romeo and Juliet, now in production up Topanga Canyon at Theatricum Botanicum.
For this production, places have changed, names have changed and times have changed. The story is now set in present day East Jerusalem; Romeo is Muslim and Juliet is Jewish. Tybalt, Mercutio, Montague (Israel López Reyes) and Capulet retain their names, but Prince Escalus is now the Prime Minister (Jonathan Bray), Friar Lawrence is Mufti Zaman (Steven B. Green), and the eager-to-marry Paris, now called Peretz (Gray Shierholt), has Hasidic forelocks and the traditional hat and long coat. These changes do no damage to the eternal story of sudden, impulsive love turned to disaster by the enmity of warring families. The words retain their power to move an audience. I think Shakespeare would applaud and say, “Where’s my royalty check.”
As Romeo and Juliet, Shaun Taylor-Corbett and Judy Durkin are enchantingly fresh and passionate, even if Mr. Taylor-Corbett rolls around on the ground like a puppy quite a lot. Rav Val Denegro, big and strong, makes the screw-loose Mercutio formidable, while his nemesis Tybalt (Taylor Jackson Ross), consumed with hate, matches his ferocity. Melora Marshall as the Nurse is devoted to Juliet and delightfully humorous. She is simply the best Nurse I have ever seen, and I have seen a few. As Capulet, Alan Blumenfeld seethes with scary, volcanic rage at Juliet for defying his wish that she marry Peretz, and as his wife, Geveret Capulet, Karen Reed expresses perfectly her disdain for her dominating husband.
Director Ellen Geer keeps the action flowing and takes maximum, 360 degree advantage of the wonderful outdoor theatre with scenes up the hill behind the stage, in the woods left and right, on the roof of the stage house and even on the roof of the control room behind the audience. It is worth the twist to see it all.
This R & J is fresh and vibrant. The old story loses none of its power and, indeed, gains a more immediate relevance. I loved it.
Romeo and Juliet runs in rotating rep with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tom, Titus Andronicus, and The Imaginary Invalid through October 2.