A love to die for
When you are passionately, purely in love, nothing else matters—not even life itself. Shakespeare’s consummate tragedy of young lovers swept into a catastrophic vortex of misunderstandings, secrets and fate is set in 1840s Alta California—a vibrant and conflicted time in our history. Romeo and Juliet, the son and daughter of two landed families locked in an old feud, are irresistibly drawn to each other. Defying the hatred and distrust surrounding them, they dare to believe they can, and must, be together.
Romeo (Daniel José Molina) and Juliet (Alejandra Escalante) are overjoyed that they are to be married. Photo: Jenny Graham.
When I first heard that the director Laird Williamson had moved the location of Shakespeare’s most popular play to the dying days of Mexican California, when Americans were starting to move in and take control of their newly acquired territory – well, I just wasn’t sure what to think of that choice. As I watched the play, though, I came to appreciate the decision. While I wasn’t crazy about the random insertions of Spanish words and phrases into Shakespeare’s text, the political situation inspired by the new location really helped to humanize Juliet’s father. Instead of being a tyrannical father irrationally insisting that his daughter marry the groom of his choice, as Capulet does in most productions, he’s a little more subtle. He’s a wealthy Mexican ranchero in a new and scary situation – the Americans have come, and he wants to ally himself with them to preserve his family’s status. What better way is there than marrying off his pretty young daughter to the son of the invading American general? I mean, yes, he’s still forcing his daughter to marry against her will, but for the first time I felt like I understand why it’s so urgent to him. Elijah Alexander was just perfect in the role. (Once again, he is paired with Vilma Silva, who played Lady Capulet; in the 2009 season they played Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. Random trivia for you.)
Benvolio (Kevin Fugaro), Romeo (Daniel José Molina) and Mercutio (Jason Rojas) decide to crash the Capulet party. Photo: Jenny Graham.
The California location also meant that the designers could have a lot of fun with the set and the costumes. That was pretty cool, but it did mean that every time Romeo and his friends stepped on the stage, I kept hearing a little song in the back of my head: “We’re three caballeros, three gay caballeros, they say we are birds of a feather! ” But really, it’s a good match to the script and the play looked great.
The two actors for the title characters were both youthful of face and full of boundless energy. It was nice to see a Romeo and a Juliet who could pass for actual teenagers. But something fell flat about them. I’m not sure what. They looked the part, and really threw themselves into their roles. But the grand spark of passion, that sizzling chemistry that makes Romeo and Juliet want to throw everything away in order to be together…I just didn’t feel it. If I tried to read it as intentional, that this love they share is utterly mundane and ordinary, it does make the rest of the story all the more tragic, because if the kids had lived a few more weeks than Romeo would have moved on to his next Epic Crush and Juliet would have cried and wrote angry poetry and moved on. Hmmm.
Romeo (Daniel José Molina) confides to Benvolio (Kevin Fugaro) that he is sad because Rosaline does not return his love. Ten minutes later, he’s like, “Rosaline who?” Photo: Jenny Graham.
As I am writing this, I realize something. I don’t like the characters Romeo or Juliet. Romeo’s an idiot, Juliet’s an idiot, and the two of them deserve their fate because they couldn’t contain their impulses long enough to think things through. Why celebrate the romance of these two Darwin Award-worthy kids? This is not the fault of the actors, but the way that Shakespeare wrote the characters. They’re just annoying to me.
But you know what makes it all better? Epic sword fights. There are plenty of them in the play, all lovingly choreographed for maximum awesome. And I have to admit, the many teenagers in the audience seemed thrilled with this play. It’s a good Romeo and Juliet, and I’d recommend it for sure if you like the play.
Romeo (Daniel José Molina) and Tybalt (Fajer Al-Kaisi) fight for the honor of their families as Benvolio (Kevin Fugaro) watches over the fallen Mercutio (Jason Rojas). Photo: Jenny Graham.