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Romper Room Romeo 

Cal Shakes has a little too much fun with Shakespeare's romantic tragedy

Wednesday, Aug 29 2001
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I owe an apology to Subterranean Shakespeare. When I saw Yoni Barkan's production of Romeo and Juliet last month I was so put off by the concept -- Capulets and Montagues as Nazis and Jews -- I didn't even bother to cover it. Some performances were shaky, but what stuck in my craw was the sight of Juliet's family in swastika armbands and Friar Lawrence wearing tefillin. It added a pall of totalitarianism that isn't supported, anywhere, by the script. The Capulets and Montagues are near-equal rivals in a free Italian city, not masters and victims in a darkening dictatorship. The actors themselves seemed confused on this point: Barkan had them reciting Shakespeare's original verses about Verona and talking in prose about "German" law, etc. -- all to emphasize Shakespeare's theme of love conquering prejudice, a worthy idea that doesn't need pounding like a gong.

Still, the lead actors were better in Barkan's production than they are in the current California Shakespeare version. So I'll give space in this review to reminiscing about how tender and disarming Nicole DuPort was in Barkan's show as Juliet, and how yearningly earnest Brendan Wolfe could be as Romeo, and how Maureen Coyne was so spot-on as the batty nurse. Coyne's speech about wormwood and about Juliet's saucy sense of humor as a toddler lingers in my head; so does the chemistry between Wolfe and DuPort in a few key scenes, especially when they caught each other's eyes across the room during the Capulets' masked ball. A Nazi-era Romeo is still a bad idea, but I found myself wishing for performances like those while watching the new production unfold on the big stage in Orinda.

Mark Rucker's production at Cal Shakes is a spare period piece, with Renaissance-era costumes and an odd mural of mounted knights with lances. Aside from these concessions to time and place the stage is bare. A vast red floor and bright yellow wall (with a gap to show green trees) give the set a simple, Romper Room look, and the cast, in fact, has fun with the script. Adam Scott's loose-limbed Romeo keeps falling down, he's so in love; he can be comic and bug-eyed if not exactly tender. Susannah Schulman also hams it up as Juliet: She's giddy and fervid, but never naive. (She looks more like a calculating mall-princess than like a girl in the first blush of love.) Schulman improves by the end of the show, but she still can't deliver Juliet's admittedly difficult, over-famous lines -- "Parting is such sweet sorrow," etc. -- without a distracting wisecrackery.

Sharon Lockwood plays the Nurse. Lockwood tends to do well with crotchety side-characters, but here she's labored; she simply can't dither as well as some actors. The word for her, too, is hammy -- she does the Nurse as a standard clown, playing to the audience and leaving out, in the process, an element of doting old-womanliness. Maybe she's miscast, like Patrick Kerr. It's nice to see Kerr stretch as Friar Lawrence, but he's too much of a comedian to play a pious monk. His best scene, tellingly, is the tantrum Lawrence throws when Romeo tries to commit suicide: Kerr finally gets to be loud.

Danny Scheie upstages everyone else with his noisy, strutting Mercutio: In a way, he's the spirit of the whole production, the sort of hilarious caricature that most of the cast leans toward playing. In Scheie's treatment the high-spirited young friend of Romeo becomes a cocky, warlike, braying diva who doesn't just taunt Juliet's nurse but tortures her with a bitchy antagonism. Scheie, of course, is gay, but he can hardly contain himself in the role of a straight bachelor. He overdoes Mercutio's rampant innuendo and even pauses the show, turning a quizzical face on the audience, to deliver the phrase "blind bowboy's butt-shaft." Now, anyone who saw Dr. Scheie's Traffic School may remember how this reference to Cupid's arrow served as Exhibit No. 1 in Scheie's pet thesis, that Shakespeare was queer. His whole performance as Mercutio is an extension of this argument, and it's funny as hell.

L. Peter Callender gives the one performance that feels both earnest and powerful, as Capulet. His elegy near the end, after Juliet's death, has a grave, unsentimental authority.

The Cal Shakes Festival under Jonathan Moscone has been playful and bold, but the productions still stumble (like last year's Hamlet) when they need to be earnest. Directors at Cal Shakes tend to forget -- as directors of some smaller companies don't -- when they're mounting tragedy. This one gets lost between the extremes of Scheie and Callender; most of it is bright and chipper in a way that isn't quite funny but isn't anything else either.

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