Thursday, February 24, 2011

Romeo and Juliet for Reals

"O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?"

You know that line. You know where it's from. You have immediate associations with it. It might take you back to a painful English class where you were supposed to read Romeo and Juliet but watched the movie instead. You might swoon over its love poetry. You might roll your eyes, but one way or another two things are probably true:

1. The word "love" popped into your consciousness either fully formed or as a vague notion.
2. Unless you're idea of a fun Friday night is a glass of wine, the Riverside Shakespeare, and your 50 cats, you probably haven't read it in a very long time (and you may well have never have seen it).

It's time to correct both of those errors.

Impact Theatre's Romeo and Juliet runs through March 26th in Berkeley. I highly recommend it. If you're afraid of Shakespeare, don't be. Melissa Hillman directs a very approachable understandable Shakespeare. This isn't men in tights with ruffles. If you hate the syrupy sweet romantic drivel that Romeo and Juliet spout off to one another, then you should definitely go see it. The play might finally make sense to you.

It finally made sense to me, and I didn't even realize it hadn't made sense before. The interpretation was one that I had never seen but felt so right I couldn't help but think I was back in London in the 1500s watching it for the first time, or rather I was watching how Shakespeare might have wanted it done today if he had access to a blood tech and a fight director (roles performed expertly by Tunuviel Luv and Dave Maier respectively for this production).

This isn't a play about love. It's a play about violence and the complex relationships adults have with teenagers. To give a modern audience a way to relate to the violence, Hillman sets the play against the backdrop of feuding Russian mob families. Then she lets the actors play the roles straight, the way they actually are on the page, not how some musty old professor once taught you.

Luisa Frasconi plays a delightfully flighty Juliet, and Michael McDonald, a lusty head-in-the-clouds Romeo. While we might remember our past selves in them, we do not identify with them. They say things to each other that only people playing at being in love say, and yet they believe with all their hearts that they are true. Their courtship in the first half becomes a hysterical comedy. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a Romantic Comedy by modern standards, because in a modern RomCom you're actually rooting for the couple. In this production you realize that they are completely full of raging hormonal bull-shit.

But the adults of the play aren't any more mature. The parents don't really care about Romeo or Juliet. They care about their power and their feud. They "love" their kids, but they don't know them as people. (Juliet's mom didn't even breastfeed her but turned that responsibility over to a wet-nurse.) They're children. They're pawns.

Surprisingly, I found myself rooting not for the Montaques or the Capulets, not for Romeo and Juliet, but for the Nurse (Bernadette Quattrone) and Friar Lawrence (Jordan Winer). They become the "normal" people in this madhouse trying to protect Romeo and Juliet from themselves and from their violent families.

Of course they fail, but the tragic ending becomes less of a comment on star-crossed lovers, and more on the senselessness of violence and the dangerous lack of communication that often plagues teen-agers and adults.

Go. Leave what you think you know about the play at home. Sit in the front row with a beer (just like the Groundlings of Shakespeare's day--although they would have been standing with a beer), and watch the blood fly.

Impact Theatre's Romeo and Juliet

Warning: contains violence and nudity, just like most quality entertainment.

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In 1789, the governor of Australia granted land and some animals to James Ruse in an experiment to see how long it would take him to support himself. Within 15 months he had become self sufficient. The area is still known as Experiment Farm. This is my Experiment Farm to see how long it will take me to support myself by writing.