Romeo y Juliet
Adapted by KJ Sanchez & Karen Zacarías
Based on Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
California Shakespeare Theater
Upfront we are advised, “What you may not comprehend with your ears, you will understand with your heart.” What audience members at California Shakespeare Theater’s Romeo y Juliet may or may not be prepared for in this script by Karen Zacarías (co-adapter with KJ Sanchez) is the amount of the Bard’s lines that will be delivered in Spanish.
With the setting being in Verona, Alta California in 1848 – a period when California was in fact still part of Mexico – the inclusion of some Spanish makes total sense and adds to the authenticity of the setting and period. But unlike Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage and film versions of In the Heights where there is certainly Spanish scattered among the English lines but the meaning is never lost, the adapters of this Romeo y Juliet have chosen to insert so much Spanish that much of the richness of the Shakespeare poetry is often lost by an audience who are surely mostly English-only speakers. Fortunately, most of us probably know the story well enough not to get too lost when entire conversations are in Spanish, but the mixture of so much Spanish within the English lines of Shakespeare – often mixed within the same line/sentence of the Bard – is too often a distraction and a feeling of “What did they just say?” In this case, my opinion is that a decision based on good intent has simply been overdone for the overall good of the production.
But the other, major boundary-breaking decision of the adapters – beyond the setting and period switch, which is common in many, modern Shakespeare productions – totally works and works beautifully. In this Romeo y Juliet, the two teenage lovers are both girls, with nothing being lost and much being often gained to shed new light on this story of historical family, adult rivalry having devastating effects on the next generation. The beauty of the story as it plays out is that nobody – parents, cousins, friar, even prince – question that two young girls are in love. Their attraction – while forbidden by the long-term hatred between the Montagues and Capulets – appears totally natural in everyone’s eyes when it comes to the fact that they are both of the same sex.
Under the astute direction of KJ Sanchez, there is little doubt that these young girls are hovering just before and just after the age of fourteen, doing the kinds of things girls do who have not yet left childhood behind but who suddenly can leap into an age several years older than they are as a kind of bold experiment. When we first meet Juliet, she is playing hide-and-seek with her Nurse in a manner one might expect of someone half her age. Our early sights of Romeo are of a girl always on the hyped-up move with jumps and romps while kidding around in a jocular manner with her cousin Benvolio and friend Mercutio. Later, we see Romeo returning to her friends skipping along in a merry way like one again might see a girl of nine or ten do. When we meet both the girls, it is clear they are on the cusp of leaving childhood behind but have not quite done so. Of the many versions of Shakespeare’s tragic tale I have seen in the past fifty years, their depictions of being Shakespeare’s young teens is the most convincing.
When they meet for the first time at a fiesta at the Capulet’s house – one where everyone is wearing wonderful masks of animals one might find at that time in California – their love at first sight gains more credence because of the youthfulness they bring to the roles. One can imagine these two, young girls seeing someone never met before and intuitively knowing, here is someone I like – a lot! They then hide sitting on the ground behind a flower garden’s wall, just as two young girls might do who are trying to stay out of sight of all the adults around them.
But it is when Gianna Digregorio Rivera (in a last-minute substitute for Sarita Ocón as Juliet) and Sarita Ocón (as Romeo) dare to sneak that first kiss that these two little girls suddenly become full-fledged teenagers in love for the first time. Their looks of total surprise and delight after that first peck and their obvious, excited eagerness for a repeat again are like that of all young teens who have done something they think maybe they should not but are totally glad they did. When Romeo says, “Sin from lips … Give me my sin again,” there is a devilishness and a discard of caution that smacks of her teenhood.
As the story progresses and turns ever more dark and tragic, we see both Romeo and Juliet step-by-step continue to leave their young girl selves as they move fully into their mid-teens. There is an impulsiveness where actions happen without clear thought of consequences that is often typical of teens. When Romeo’s temper boils over after Tybalt has killed Mercutio, she grabs a whip and taunts him like one could imagine a teenage girl who is enraged doing so; and when that whip goes around Tybalt’s neck, we see a teen’s rage in her eyes but also sense she has no idea what she is really doing. Clear from her expressions it is that this teen did not mean to kill but did so not understanding her own strength or really what a twisted rope around a neck could do.
Up until their final demise, KJ Sanchez as director guides these two excellent actors to maintain a sense of naiveté that inexperience brings to the teenage years and also a reckless boldness that is not unlike today’s teens skateboarding down steep hills without a helmet or popping a pill for the first time for a hoped-for high without questioning the possible harm.
While our focus and interest are mostly on this set of lovers – especially given most of us for the first time are seeing a same-sex R&J – there is much to relish and admire by the performances of the rest of this cast. As Nurse to Juliet, Wilma Bonet comes close to stealing the show from time to time, so wonderful is she in a role where she combines into one marvelous portrayal that of silly playmate, adoring caregiver, and willing assistant for forbidden trysts. Equally lovable in many respects and also another star every time he steps on stage as Friar Lawrence is Orlando Arriaga. In that role, he is so openly and genuinely accepting of this same-sex union in a manner one wishes in 2022 all Catholic clergy would be. He also brings his own dose of naivite as a Friar whose eyes twinkle as he plots how to drug Juliet into a false death while outsmarting her family but who also falters in the follow-up of his plan.
What makes Orlando Arriga’s performance particularly noteworthy is how he quickly switches between jolly Friar and extremely stern, bordering-on-abusive father of Juliet, Capulet. In that role, there is little to like about the man he portrays, which is exactly the effect demanded by the script.
Brady Morales-Woolery is a good-hearted, happy-go-lucky Benvolio who also is totally believable as a kid in his teen years while Juan Manel Amador is a great yin to Benvolio’s yang in that he is always the joker, the teaser, and the saucy one who is quick to be a bit bawdy. He is also totally credible as the kind of teen who would lose his temper easily to get into a sudden fight with Tybalt.
As the hotheaded Tybalt who walks around as if looking for a fight, Hugo Carbajal is the epitome of late-teen cockiness. When he steps into the role of Juliet’s intended, Paris, it is less clear he really is all that attracted to Juliet but clear he wants to please her father and to join as a member of this respected and rich family.
The setting of the East Bay’s golden hills dotted with the green of trees is a gorgeous and most appropriate backdrop for Tanya Orellana’s impressive scenic design of ranch dwellings, giving us a good idea what life in 1848 might have looked for the more wealthy of the Alta California families. The wooden framed houses, the lush gardens, the tiled ground with swirled floral designs, and the carts full of ripe persimmons all give an air of authenticity.
The same can be said by the array of period costumes designed by Jessie Amoroso that range from the thick, humble robes of a friar to the sleek and stylish dress of Lady Capulet (Eliana Lopez). A brilliant choice of dress is made when Romeo foregoes a petticoated dress most girls would normally wear for a pair of wide-legged pants, setting up perfectly her butch moves against Tybalt and her sudden forced transition into more maturity brought on by Romeo’s banishment.
Kudos also goes to fight coordinator, Dave Maier, with the play’s fight scenes always being incredibly realistic even when one is sitting close to the stage. The director’s choice of weapons that might be found on a farm setting (pitchfork, whip, knife) is also terrific.
While KJ Sanchez makes many wonderful directorial choices, there are a few that lessen the impact of the story’s tragic turns. When Nurse finds Juliet seemingly dead in her room on the morning of her to-be wedding with Paris, the scene of her and Lady Capulet’s overly loud wailing seems to go on forever. It almost becomes comical as is the final demise of Juliet when her self-inflicted knife wound is so overdone to be near-funny.
There is also a mysterious inclusion in Act Two with Benvolio watching from a second floor perch the entire act with an occasional but silent reaction. I personally kept looking at him and wondering why he was there and if there was a modification in the script whereby he would say to do something.
It is Benvolio who gives the epilogue of “for never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo” – one that is usually said by the Prince to the friar and the gathered adults of both families. As we watch Paris, Juliet, and Romeo untangle themselves from their death positions in order to walk over and face us in a final line-up with the rest of the cast as Benvolio pronounces these words, it is also a choice that decreases the impact of all the senseless deaths we have just witnessed.
So, while overall the acting, the talents of the creative team, and the choice of having two teenage girls be the focus of the story really work well in this Romeo y Juliet of California Shakespeare Theatre, there are some choices by both writer and director that in my opinion detract and diminish the beauty of the poetry and the power of the tragedy.
Rating: 3.5 E
Romeo y Juliet continues through June 19, 2022, in production by California Shakespeare Theater at the Bruns Amphitheatre, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, CA. Tickets are available online at www.calshakes.org/or by contacting the box office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credits: Kevin Berne