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San Francisco by Patrick Thomas

Romeo and Juliet
Marin Shakespeare Company

Also see Jeanie's reviews of Spamalot and South Pacific and Richard's review of The Great Pretender


Jake Murphy and Luisa Frasconi
It's all too easy to dismiss (or ignore) a classic. Especially if one is a connoisseur of the art form. It's easy—and, to a certain extent, fashionable and hip—to focus on the new or the obscure or the experimental. Everyone knows Beethoven's Ninth—so you listen to Górecki's Third so people know just how cool and avant you are. The Seven Samurai is part of the curriculum for pretty much every "Introduction to Cinema" course—so you talk up the work of some obscure Korean director in order to establish your cineaste bona fides. The thing is, those classic works are classic for a reason, and if you take a moment to re-experience them with as fresh a mind as you can bring, you're opening yourself up to something wonderful.

Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is as classic as they come. Including all the high school productions, it's likely one the most-produced plays ever. But if you get thyself to the somewhat-rustic Forest Meadows Amphitheatre on the campus of Dominican University in San Rafael, you can rediscover for yourself why this love story (if a romantic comedy is a "romcom," then is this a "romtrag"?) has graced stages for more than four centuries.

First, the Marin Shakespeare Company cast absolutely revels in the opportunity to speak the Bard's poetry. Their joy at being part of a company of actors following a long tradition comes through in every moment they are on stage. There is nothing especially new or groundbreaking about director Lesley Schisgall Currier's approach to the play, but she has nonetheless found a way to make it feel contemporary and accessible to a modern audience.

The cast is wonderful, each and every one. Though there are a few standouts, there is no one holding back or reminding us—through an inadequate or lazy performance—that we are watching a cast that includes many people for whom acting is a sideline and not how they pay the rent. (Of the two dozen or so cast members, only five are members of Actor's Equity.)

And, fortunately, the standouts are many, starting with the two leads. Luisa Frasconi's Juliet is marvelous. Part moony teenager, part self-assured spitfire, she's not one to let this tragedy happen to her, but is an active participant in all that goes on. She also has a strong partner in Jake Murphy, whose Romeo is charming, self-assured and also in charge of his own future. Murphy moves with grace and assurance, even when his character is beset by the forces conspiring against him.

Kudos also to Julian Lopez-Morillas for a tender and touching portrayal of Friar Laurence, the clergyman who secretly marries Romeo and Juliet, and later attempts—with tragic consequences—to assist in their escape from the social and legal strictures that conspire to keep them separate. Scott Coopwood, as the Prince of Verona, is also marvelous, bringing a tangible sense of authority to the role.

Highest honors, however, might have to go to San Francisco comedy empress (and impresario) Debi Durst as Juliet's Nurse, and to Adam Roy in the role of Peter, a servant in the house of Montague. Durst's rubber face and supremely developed sense of comic timing are an absolute delight. You can feel the audience's spirits lift every time she steps on stage. Roy's physicality and grace bring a wonderful sophistication to a role that can easily be played far too clownishly, even though it's clear he's looking for laughs. He's a joy to watch.

Sets and costumes are likewise in balance with the rest of the production, which is to say they are well-done and in service of the playwright's and director's intentions. Everything is in black and white and shades of grey—until it's time to foreshadow the bloody conclusion.

One additional note: after an anonymous million-dollar gift, the Marin Shakespeare Company invested in a new high-tech sound system which subtly—but quite effectively—amplifies the actor's voices, making it much easier to capture every nuance of Shakespeare's poetry and the actors' interpretations of it.

Romeo and Juliet runs through September 28, 2014, at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, 890 Belle Avenue, San Rafael. The play is presented in repertory on various Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Specific performance days can be found (and tickets ordered) at www.marinshakespeare.org, or call 415-499-4488. Tickets are $35 general, $32 for seniors and $20 for youth. "Pay Your Age" is offered to audience members between the ages of 20 and 35 when purchasing tickets at the box office on the day of any performance, with valid identification.


Photo: Eric Chazankin


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Patrick Thomas



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