SCS’s Romeo and Juliet

By Philip Pearce

SHAKESPEARE CREATED some wonderful women, especially in the great comedies, but there’s no getting around the fact that the big majority of his characters are men. Many a modern day production company is at work trying to redress that imbalance by casting traditionally male roles with female performers. Not least at Santa Cruz Shakespeare, which offered a creditable Princess Hamlet two years ago and now bends the genders of two major roles in its interesting new production of Romeo and Juliet.

The evening starts off not with Romeo and Juliet, but with Benvolio, and if you forget exactly who he is, that’s no surprise. Like Horatio in Hamlet, he’s one of those good-guy best friends of the hero who tend to get lost in the headlong rush of the plot and the fireworks of the star performances. So when Nia Kingsley, wearing the clothes of a Renaissance gent but clearly a female, took center stage at the Grove in DeLaveaga Park surrounded by the entire cast, I assumed  the evening was going to start with the “star-crossed lovers” prologue parceled out to her and a handful of other actors. Not so. This female Benvolio gave us a focused and spirited reading of the entire prologue and the show was off to good start.

It’s an adroit piece of casting by director Laura Gordon. Making Benvolio Romeo’s girl cousin and giving her some spotlight introduces us to a level headed extended family member who’s also funny and perceptive. She has the chutzpa to confront the excesses both of her love-sick boy cousin and the two hot-headed feuding tribes that threaten the peace of Verona and, ultimately, the lives of its two most famous lovers. I smiled every time Kingsley entered the story with a sword at her hip and just enough swagger to make it clear this lady is not to be trifled with but also has enough playful feminine charm up her sleeve to turn heads and win hearts at any Veronese social evening. 

None of it works, of course, without a good Romeo and Juliet. Taha Mandviwala and Isabel Pask are delightful, bringing to the time-honored characters a freshness and vigor that sometimes gets smothered in moonlight and iambic pentameter, but not in this fast-paced version.  This Romeo starts as a lovable mooncalf spouting overblown rhapsodies to a local heartbreaker named Rosaline. Mandviwala offers these outpourings with a sly awareness that they are going to sound even stupider when Romeo’ does a hasty u-turn and falls head over heels for the adorable Juliet.  There’s always too much of the unwitting buffoon lurking in the wings to turn this Romeo into a romantic hero until his final moments in the Capulet family tomb.  

By contrast, Isabel Pask’s Juliet is lovely to look at and starts out as a girl with her head screwed firmly on her shoulders and her feet planted firmly on the ground. Smitten from the start, she nevertheless launches the relationship with a warning to Romeo against too much hanky panky on the dance floor. Yet a day later, she has fallen so deeply into his heedless dance of ardor that she’s threatening to stab herself to death because he’s been banished for killing her cousin Tybalt. The all too familiar balcony scene is short on moonlit rhetoric and atmosphere but has a disarming clarity and logic. These strong willed lovers aren’t swooning in a garden. They are engaged in a kind of competitive battle of sweet talk. Juliet‘s opening “Wherefore art though Romeo?” isn’t some dreamy outpouring of sentiment. It’s a logical expression of frustration that he’s complicating things by walking around town with that highly inconvenient name.  

Side by side these fresh interpretations almost change Romeo and Juliet from a play about two poetic victims of parental idiocy to the story of a gorgeous but sensible girl who knew where she was going till she fell for a romantic chameleon and into his moonstruck but deadly ways.   

Romeo’s pal Mercutio is a character of such compelling charm that scholars speculate Shakespeare has to kill him off in Act 3 just to keep him from walking away with the play. In a pre-show discussion between members of the production’s technical team, director Gordon explained that the concept, costuming and stage setting of this version aim at a Renaissance atmosphere with an underlying contemporary attitude. That’s seen at its clearest in Lorenzo Roberts’ beguiling if unconventional Mercutio. The audience, particularly a big group of school-aged spectators sprawled on blankets in the Groundling Box section,   loved his repertoire of unpredictable glides and lurches, his rapper-toned approach to the Queen Mab speech and his graceful swordplay. Think Eddie Murphy but add a strong helping of bawdy inflection and gesture and you’ll get the picture. 

Mercutio dies at the hands of Juliet’s hot-blooded cousin Tybalt, played with a lot of energy by Maggie Adams McDowell in a second piece of cross-gender casting that didn’t work half as well for me as the Nia Kingsley Benvolio. Both actresses seem to want to offer nuanced characterizations. Trouble is Benvolio turns out to have some nice under-explored depths and shoals, whereas the flashy Tybalt is really a Johnny One-Note. Her sole aim is to curse, challenge and kill off as many Montague as she can lay her hands on. Challenging Roberts, McDowell engages in some expert swordplay of her own, but for a reason I can’t quite put my finger on, she seems athletic, shrill and irritated but not menacing. A likable looking lady, she strikes me as maybe having more variety as an actress than the one track Tybalt has as a character. Is it possible that all a successful Tybalt requires is the blinkered aggressive determination of a Saturday morning super heroine?    

As Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet, Tommy A Gomez does an excellent shift from the diplomatic and hospitable host of the party scene to the snarling and brutal tyrant who tries to bully his daughter into a bigamous marriage to Vincent Williams’ stodgy Count Paris. Santa Cruz Shakespeare artistic director Mike Ryan is a fine forceful Friar Lawrence, who supports Benvolio as the doomed lovers’ other voice of reason yet ironically sets up a complicated rescue plan that turns into the final tragic suicide pact.  

Juliet’s garrulous nurse is one of the great characters in the Shakespearean canon and Patty Gallagher is one of the top comic stage performers on the Monterey Peninsula. She makes the iconic role her own, which means a lot of skilled use of a flexible voice and a supple little bull terrier body. Gallagher whirls around like a tornado and that approach works well in those moments when the Nurse is an eager go-between for the doomed couple. But her steady dependence on comic timing and physical comedy works against one important function the Nurse serves in the story. She’s a jumbled but glorious goldmine of working class folk wisdom, with an obsession for digging up the past. Gallagher approaches the funny twists and permutations of the Nurse’s recollections of past events like the death of Juliet’s twin and of wet-nursing the infant Juliet as if they were elements in a piece of stand-up comedy. But the comedy is there in the lines; play the character and you’ll get the laughs with no need for any nightclub embellishments. What gets lost is the Nurse’s role as a guardian and surviving link in a Capulet family history of domestic unity and civic violence that didn’t begin day before yesterday.  

But there’s never been a production, however great, however flawed, that has touched all the heights or plumbed all the depths of a Shakespeare classic. This new Romeo and Juliet suggests some interesting new ones I’d never considered before, so I’m thankful for the experience.

It continues in repertory with Love’s Labour’s Lost and, opening August 7, Venus in Fur through September 1st. 

Photo by rr jones