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Pretty Good Shakespeare 

Romeo and Juliet
by Michael Scott Moore
plus Much Ado About Nothing

The amphitheater in Berkeley's John Hinkel Park looks suspiciously like the abandoned site of a Shakespeare festival. The slope of a hill overlooking the stage has been cut into steps, which are marked with faded paint that showed audiences where to sit, back when the Berkeley Shakespeare Company convened every summer in the dusty tree-embower'd bowl.

Berkeley Shakes moved to Orinda in 1991 and renamed itself Cal Shakes. So in 1997, the Shotgun Players took over the chore of doing Elizabethan theater in Berkeley parks, including Hinkel. It's becoming a tentative tradition, interrupted by last summer's Shakespeare in the Parking Lot tour, a likably smartass idea that was unfortunately sabotaged by teenagers throwing rocks.

Now the company is back in the park, doing Romeo and Juliet. (On a side note, the play turns out to have excellent comic potential, especially when you remember that women, in Shakespeare's time, didn't act -- female roles were played by apprentice boys. So the original Juliet must have looked more like a catamite than a romantic Victorian girl, and the raw material this suggests for a satirical gay revival makes you wonder why Danny Scheie hasn't tried it already.) However, revisionism isn't what Shotgun is up to, and the company's Romeo and Juliet is very straight.

Dan Wolf plays a strapping young Romeo, and Marin Van Young is a funny postmodern Juliet. Both have California mannerisms that keep the play from wandering too far back to Europe. Van Young sometimes gives up trying to be diaphanously graceful and makes Juliet an excitable neurotic. These parts are hilarious. She gets through the script's clichés with a funny lack of patience -- "Wherefore art thou, Ro-meo?" -- but pays for this comedy later, when she can't quite get her tongue around the most formal Elizabethan language.

Wolf makes an earnest Romeo, sometimes strained, but surprisingly fluid just when you think he's going to sound too swaggering or too sincere. One of his strongest speeches comes after Romeo's been banished from Verona (instead of executed), for killing Tybalt, when he puts real resentment into the lines: "'Tis torture, and not mercy. Heaven is here where Juliet lives. ... More courtship lives in carrion flies than Romeo." And his fights are good: The duel with Tybalt has Romeo leaping over foil-slashes, then kicking Tybalt's weapon across the stage and struggling for a knife. Rebecca Salzer's fight choreography throughout the play has a careening force that makes the front row nervous for its safety.

Shakespeare leaves lots of room for strong work in smaller roles; the question is always who will pull it off. In this case the Nurse, Mercutio, and Friar Laurence all brighten their various scenes. Trish Mulholland is an ideal Nurse, doting on Juliet with a cartoonishly bug-eyed face; in a mild cockney accent she delivers her nattering nonsense about Juliet being weaned with wormwood and falling on her face as a 3-year-old. She's both fond and pettish. Reid Davis is a compelling (and naturally tonsured) Friar Laurence, both pious and hard-voiced, and sometimes ironic and mocking. When Romeo and Friar Laurence wait for Juliet before the lovers' secret wedding, the Friar intones, "Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so./ Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow." Frantic Juliet comes crashing through the door. "O, so light a foot," comments the Friar.

Kevin Karrick's Mercutio has a nice nimble solidity: He's easy with his lines as well as exaggeratedly crude, and gets to tell most of the lewd jokes -- "Flesh, how art thou fishified!" and a good one about Romeo hiding his bauble in a hole -- and Karrick seems to love every word. The verbal parrying between Romeo and Mercutio that climaxes with a merciless twitting of Juliet's Nurse is the production's tightest and strongest scene. Benvolio (Tommy Shepworth) keeping comical score in the background while the two friends argue helps to raise the tension, and the Nurse's offended, horrified glances at Mercutio as he sings about an "old hare hoar" are priceless. The players get the most out of every detail from Shakespeare's dirty mind -- details certain productions in Orinda tend to miss.

Shepworth's Benvolio has a comfortable sturdiness, too. He holds up scenes as Mercutio's straight man but also puts out a sly humor of his own, especially during the Capulets' masked ball. When the Montague boys crash the party Benvolio tries to act normal by humming music while they dance; this is not only funny but also a low-budget way to meet Shakespeare's stage directions for music. The velvet, sheer scarves, rolled headdresses, and feathered masks at the party are vivid and bright, like all the costumes, and Michael Frassinelli's set is a clever way of solving the scene problems in one portable-looking, walled-cityish piece, even if you can tell from a distance that it's not really made of stone.

What the show lacks is pathos. I didn't come close to crying. Maybe Romeo and Juliet is too famous to end with any tragic surprise, but somehow the final cadences here didn't stir me. True, some acting is weak -- Katherine Seabron makes not just her Shakespeare debut but her stage debut with this show, and her Lady Capulet seems awkward, while Michael Wiles plays an unconvincing Balthasar and Kevin Karrick falls apart as Lord Montague -- but a necessary sad tension is also missing from the whole production. Though Juliet on the funeral bier looks dramatic, in a light green dress, on a lace cloth, draped in a faint black veil, and the failing light in the park and the flute of mourning doves set an eloquent scene, instead of mounting to some awful catharsis the play stands revealed as a morality tale about blood hatred.

It's good to see the Shotgun Players take over at Hinkel Park, though, and offer a low-budget (free, in fact) alternative to Cal Shakes. They seem to enjoy themselves, as usual, and give Romeo and Juliet a nimble energy that a lot of summer Shakespeare lacks.

Much Ado About Nothing
Subterranean Shakespeare Artistic Director Stephen Spengler again takes on the thumps and rumbles of this basement venue as director, actor (the soldier prince Don Pedro), and house manager of this production. He's spread a bit thin, but projects a clear affection for the play and its language, while his cast demonstrates (with one or two exceptions) that it understands the words it speaks. Best of all, he's got two terrific actors: the dashing Neil Howard as Benedick and the whip-smart Barbara Jaspersen as Beatrice. Howard's Benedick shuffles and shifts, moving in rhythm with his verbal thrusts and parries. Jaspersen's Beatrice smugly tangles Benedick up in his own wit, and leaves him happily bound. When Benedick agrees to challenge Claudio for Beatrice, Howard deftly navigates Benedick's course from shocked dismay to acquiescence. Jaspersen is extraordinary in the scene in which Hero's marriage is first confirmed. She turns down Don Pedro's somewhat mocking proposal and begs forgiveness, giving the line, "I was born to speak all mirth and no matter" a sad grace note that lends surprising complexity.

Gary Barth's Claudio has trouble conveying levity, but he's fine in the dramatic scenes, while the lovely Amy Sass as Hero would make any man fall in love with her, though she trips up occasionally on the language. There are small miscues and stutters throughout the show, and the low comedy and slapstick sequences fail completely, which inadvertently emphasizes Hero's betrayal to the point of tragedy. The company also loses energy, evincing more relief then celebration at play's end. Yet Spengler's joy in his actors and in Shakespeare's language carries him -- and us -- through.

Through Oct. 2 at La Val's Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid in Berkeley. Call (510) 234-6046.

--Joe Mader


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