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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Duality Drives Destiny in Marin Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet

Posted By on Tue, Aug 5, 2014 at 12:56 PM

click to enlarge COURTESY OF MARIN SHAKESPEARE COMPANY
  • Courtesy of Marin Shakespeare Company
The observation that "Romeo & Juliet" — the story of two teenagers who get wrapped up in a meaningless family conflict that resolves in gory murder-suicide and disappointingly little sex — has been misidentified as Western civilization’s most enduring love story is not new. This author is not the first to wonder why the crowded pantheon of tales competing for the title Greatest Love Story Ever Told — Gone With the Wind, Titanic, etc. — are grotesque tragedies far removed from what most couples hope to include in their “how we met” stories. Once we admit that a 13-year-old repeatedly threatening to stab herself is no sane person’s idea of romance, it becomes clear that "Romeo & Juliet" is a psychologically seductive emotional drama is on par with "Hamlet" and "Macbeth." And the Marin Shakespeare Company succeeds with a classical interpretation in a gorgeous outdoor setting that shows how a romantic comedy and a tragic romance can be one in the same.

Indeed there is enough in the first two hours of "Romeo & Juliet" to make an Oscar Wilde comedy. The play opens under Currier’s direction with a joyous skirmish between servants of the two families, whose empty threats and “thumb biting” are at once comical and gloomy predictions of the violence that will ensue. Adam Roy, as a Capulet servant, seizes each of his moments on stage with comedic mastery. This production highlights themes of duality again and again through clever costumes and through moving dexterously between humor and tragedy, young and old, happenstance and destiny.

Shakespeare’s play is a study in contradictions which the Marin Company does its best to elucidate. When Romeo first enters he is hooded like a grim reaper. When he casts off his cloak, Jake Murphy looks, and often sounds, like he just stepped off the set of a CW drama about football players. Like many of his cast members, his tendency to slip into modern cadences and mannerisms can be distracting.

“Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs!” Romeo cries to his unsympathetic bros, sounding for all the world like a quarterback crossed in love with the head cheerleader. Oh thanks, Romeo, that’s what love is — I’d been wondering when a horny teenager was finally going to come up with the definitive metaphor for it.

Appearances matter to the warring families, to their detriment. Lady Capulet, (in a rich portrayal as an out-of-touch-alcoholic by Marcia Pizzo) propositions her daughter with marriage to a man she has never met, telling her to “Read o'er the volume of young Paris' face and find delight writ there with beauty’s pen.” Indeed Paris is a comely, Thor-like gentleman; most every actor on the stage is the kind you want to see sex-ing and stabbing each other. The Capulets maintain the false appearance of offering their daughter choices, dooming themselves to a daughter who will ultimately disappoint them by seeking real emotional engagement as she and Romeo try to break their families’ cycle of pettiness.

This outdoor production clocks in at about three hours, but Shakespeare’s scenes move with such speedy grace and the production gambols along with them. As Murphy is permitted to show more emotional range his versatility as an actor becomes clear. He and Juliet (Luisa Frasconi) are best together, when the enormity of their attraction fills any space they share. Shakespeare’s young lovers have more sweet nothings to whisper than those who followed in their wake, (“I would I were thy bird” almost certainly becomes the ear-bleeding, “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird” of The Notebook) and these two handle their awkward teenage flirting with sweet Shakespearian bluster.

Murphy and Frasconi’s readings of the star-crossed lovers is neither a paean to immortal love nor an argument against its existence, but a prayer that the connection between two people could be enough to surmount hatred between many more. As the play progresses, darkness descends over the amphitheater like the long shadows of tragedy casts over the two families. Joyful marauding gives way to cold-blooded murder in the streets of Verona (Teddy Spencer, as Tybalt, gives himself a particularly good death) while inside, domestic integrity has disappeared;13-year-old Juliet's parents push her to get over her cousin’s murder and rid herself of virginity before she becomes some kind of Veronan old maid (Who agreed to cater this wedding with two days of notice anyway?).

As black and white-clad bodies slump on the stage, actors address the crowd directly from the lip of the stage, calling on the audience to bear witness to a crime and cast a vote: between fate and free will, which is the guilty, and which the innocent party?

“Go hence to have more talk of these sad things”, says the Prince, in the final monologue of the show, as Warren Zevon plays over the bows. Talk of young girls who know “if all fails myself hath power to die,” of toys turned into instruments of death, of adults who pass down grievances from generation to generation — this may not be the most enduring love story of all time, but there is no doubt at all that it is enduring. 

"Romeo & Juliet" by the Marin Shakespeare Company plays at the Forest Meadows Amphitheater at Dominican University until September 28. General tickets are $35 with discounts for youth and seniors and a pay-your-age option for people ages 20 to 35. 
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Jenny Singer

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