'Romeo and Juliet'

It is hard to think of a new, exciting way to present Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." All too many productions — good and bad — have almost obscured Shakespeare's gorgeous language and the poignancy of betrayed young love. But OSF's newest production of "Romeo and Juliet" magnificently succeeds in making this overly familiar classic passionate, relevant and immediate.

The freshness of this production is due to director Laird Williamson's unique vision. Williamson, who has given the festival marvelous, innovative productions of "Don Quixote," "Coriolanus" and "On the Razzle," has set this "Romeo and Juliet" in California in 1847.

Shortly after the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in 1846, the Mexican province of Alta California was conquered and occupied by the United States military. The rancheros lived as landed gentry, much like their 17th-century ancestors had lived in Spain (or, for that matter, in Shakespeare's England). Williamson superimposes the tensions between the old Californio and newly emerging Anglo cultures upon Shakespeare's feuding Montagues and Capulets. In Williamson's story, the conflicts are adjudicated not by a prince but by an American general (Rex Young). His nephew, "Capt. Paris" (Miles Fletcher), becomes the unlikely suitor for Juliet. With this scenario, Capulet's rage at Juliet's unwillingness to marry the general's nephew is given an interesting shading. Capulet sees the handwriting on the wall and is anxious to ally himself with the victors. Juliet's recalcitrance becomes a potentially dangerous political snub.

The contrast between cultures is achieved by having the Montagues and Capulets speak in slight Spanish accents and sprinkling their dialogue with Spanish words and phrases. The device works because it is never heavy-handed.

As with Williamson's prior Festival productions, this "Romeo and Juliet" effortlessly resonates across age groups without betraying the original material. It will scoop up younger audiences (all those bused-in high school kids who fill the theaters during the spring shoulder season) and enthrall more seasoned theatergoers as well.

Williamson did some masterful casting here. His Romeo (Daniel José Molina) and Juliet (Alejandra Escalante) are younger than we usually see them. But the play is explicit. Juliet is "not yet 14 years old" and, from the banter among his friends, it is apparent that Romeo is not much older, probably around 16. Molina and Escalante are both accomplished actors and convey the heedless impetuosity and intensity of teenage love as older actors can seldom do.

Likewise, Jason Rojas and Fajer Al-Kaisi, as Mercutio and Tybalt, bring singular energy to their roles. Mercutio and Tybalt are supposed to be somewhat older (and presumably wiser) than the impetuous young lovers but their bravado and role-playing — the street fighter Tybalt and the jaded Mercutio — are ultimately the catalyst that dooms the match.

Williamson's older actors are equally well cast out of OSF's exceptional repertory company. Juliet's parents are played by an imposing Elijah Alexander and equally impressive Vilma Silva. Isabell Monk O'Connor is delightful as Juliet's ribald nurse and Tony DeBruno is effective as the well-meaning but hapless Friar Laurence. Barzin Akhavan and DeLanna Studi are the elder Montagues swept along in the action.

Michael Ganio has done a lovely, spare scenic design, using a curved adobe wall with slatted wood panels to create rooms, a garden, a crypt. The expansive screen above the set with dramatic visuals of the changing sky is by Don Darnutzer. Susan Tsu's Mexican-themed costumes are beautifully subtle and effective. Original music and the sound design are by David Reiffel, and Alonzo Lee Moore IV provided some lovely choreography.

In short, this is an elegant and relevant production of the timeless classic. What a nice way to start the season.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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