There is an ever-present sense of danger lurking beneath the envious moon in “Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers, each title character representing one house that despises the other. Juliet, with her radiant precociousness, has always been an odd partner for Romeo. He is one who drones on and on about love he will never have, making immature and rash decisions constantly, immediately reminding those around him that he ain’t here for joy and mirth. Even his first line kind of pisses me off. “Is the day so young?” asks Señor Sad with all the joy of a spoiled peach.
But what a revelation is “Romeo y Juliet,” the bilingual adaptation at California Shakespeare Theatre. Critical shifts live within Karen Zacarias’ divine reimagining of the play, a piece that does two critical things. The first is setting the story in brutal Alta, California in the 1840s, a place where hearing the snap of a bullwhip is as common as the cherubic singing of a lark. And the second is the most perilous – Romeo is now a woman, the story falling in the annals of a lesbian narrative.
It’s the latter choice that provides the Cal Shakes production with an immense thrill and binding urgency that seeks to craft secrets which change so many dynamics. Juliet (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera) is now asking her Nurse (Wilma Bonet) to support not just her love of a Montague, but her love of another woman, two secrets of heightened danger. And Romeo (Sarita Ocón) confides deeply into the laid back Friar Lawrence (Orlando Arriaga), his slow drawl a nod to a puro Chicano vibe. Providing the service of marriage with the hopes of a peace treaty between two toxic families feels a little hopeful in the original text, but is downright delusional and misguided here.
The dramatic irony of the piece is that we know what’s really going down, which is hiding in plain sight from Capulet (Arriaga) and his wife Lady Capulet (Eliana Lopez) Finally, heating up the stakes are the fiery Tybalt (Hugo Carbajal) and his nemesis Mercutio (Juan Amador), two characters who destroy so much when they attempt to destroy each other. A nice reminder of the colonial legacy being built is the costume of the Prince, indicating that Alta will become a vastly different place than what longtime inhabitants ever imagined.
Despite a thrilling cast from top to bottom, the responsibility of carrying the show belongs to Ocón and Rivera, two phenomenal artists who commit beautifully to the intentions of the young lovers. Piercing discoveries enter Ocón, one of the most versatile actors in the game, received from Rivera’s thrilling portrayal that allows every moment to be built from the inside out. Juliet’s strength has always been maturity well beyond her years, reminding everyone that she treats vows as sacrosanct, despite others who push her in unfairly compromising situations. In the hands of both artists, just notice the way their kisses are beautifully discovered, devastation fully realized, and stakes properly raised.
What Zacarías achieves in her bold shaping of the script, along with KJ Sanchez’s stellar and immersive staging, is a fresh and crisp sense of urgency. By virtue of framing the forbidden love for more reasons than just familial, the purpose every character wrestles with is off the charts.
Aside from the phenomenal work of those who interpret the title characters, the cast from top to bottom is a fierce collection of game-changers. Brady Morales-Woolery understands what a strong moral core means for his Benvolio. Both Amador and Carbajal bring rage and truth to the arcs of Mercutio and Tybalt, respectively. Lopez’s portrayal is more loving than many interpretations which see Lady Capulet as solely self-consumed. Bonet’s fantastic turn as the Nurse is a perfect mix of bawdy and bumbling, loving and loyal. And Arriaga should have been arrested for stealing the show as Capulet, truly disconcerting. He seethes and snarls, a man who will not be disrespected in his own house, dropping highly misogynistic language that just hits differently in Spanish. The realization and forceful clarity he presents to Juliet drives the play’s final harrowing moments.
Supplementing the action mightily are Madeleine Oldham’s superior sound design, Jessie Amoroso’s wonderful period costumes that may be the only things heavier than the plot, and Russell H. Champa’s celestial and metaphoric lighting when finally taking full effect.
As the young lovers ready for marriage, the beautiful Mexican standard “Cancion Mixteca” punctures the light winds of the famed outdoor space in Orinda, foreshadowing an untimely end. While the song describes longing for a land far away, a few of these lyrics are so apt and perfect for the show as a whole:
“Al verme tan solo y triste cual hoja al viento,
Quisiera llorar, quisiera morir de sentimiento.”
There is very little hope in the song, even less hope inside the play. But there is a generous helping of hope in what we can take from this retelling:
Whether one is bilingual or not, passion is understandable in any language.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
California Shakespeare Theater presents “Romeo y Juliet”
Adapted by Karen Zacarías
Adapted from the play “Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare
Directed by KJ Sanchez
The word: Danger is heightened tremendously in this phenomenal production, a queer love story that raises the stakes in colonial Alta, California in the 1840s.
100 Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, CA
Running time: Two hours, 30 minutes with an intermission
Through June 19
Tickets range from $30 – $70
For tickets, call (510) 548-9666 or visit calshakes.org