Romeo and Juliet (Pickwick Players/PowPac Community Theatre)

Romeo and Juliet (a joint production between PowPac Community Theatre and Pickwick Players, now at PowPac theatre July 6 through August 5, 2018), somehow manages to find a brand new voice amidst a fairly classical interpretation of William Shakespeare’s iconic romance. Costumes for this production, though simple, were nonetheless well-crafted with a distinct nod to Renaissance period if not drowning in true period slashed velvets and brocades, with the men in breeches, knee socks, voluminous muslin tunics and doublets or tabards, and the women in chemises and square-necked gowns. The text to the production also stays remarkably close to Shakespeare’s original, with only a few minor edits, to great effect. The overall pacing of the show was masterfully handled by director Tyler Hewes, who kept the action moving constantly with the use of a black box set, requiring no space between scenes, and an almost bare stage save for four chairs that were easily manipulated by the actors and always with character-driven motivation, never frantic or needless business. The removal of the typical space needed for the many scene changes allowed the actors to breathe between lines and give weight and consideration where needed, rather than racing through a roughshod pace; this in combination with the obvious work Hewes had put in with each individual actor on physicalizing their lines and their evident comprehension of the language made the show perfectly comprehensible and even at a fairly long run time (two hours forty five minutes) seem to fly by.

The new voice found within “Romeo and Juliet” would seem to be with the use of the production’s many gender swaps with women playing male characters: Romeo, Mercutio, Tybalt, the Friar, Balthazar and the Prince. But in actuality the change of voice was an undercurrent found within just about every one of these overly well-known characters. One of the dangers in attempting a play which almost every public school child will have read by the time they finish high school is that we know how the play will end. We know these characters. We even know many of their speeches, their individual lines. We’ve seen Leonardo di Caprio run these same scenes. How can you reinvent such classic plot lines and characters without turning it into a stuffy parade of archetypes? Tyler Hewes manages to brilliantly shape each character as something slightly different from expectation and each time for a specific purpose. With Jeremy Schaeg (Capulet) playing Juliet’s father as a somewhat goofy, happy drunk, we see a doting father who loves his daughter and his wife madly; we understand why Juliet might have felt bold enough to break convention and marry in secret, hoping her father might understand. When Tybalt is killed, that same loving father, concerned at Juliet’s distress, seeks out a solution to his daughter’s happiness–a quick match to kinsman Paris–and though Paris tries to demur, because we’ve already seen Schaeg laughing, drinking, trusting, believing the best in people (he gently scolds Tybalt at the masque for trying to fight Romeo, smiling as he names Romeo a well-mannered youth) his soft spoken dismissal of Paris’ (Nick Hessling) doubts comes across not as bluff or arrogant but because he truly believes the best of Paris and wants the best for Juliet. It becomes a shocking, gut-wrenching scene then, moments later, when Juliet (Heather Warren) refuses to marry Paris and Schaeg loses it, pounding the walls and storming the stage with a deadly fury. Juliet falls to her knees under the onslaught and we understand immediately why she feels hopeless and suicidal in the wake of this rage–her teddy-bear of a father has turned for a moment into a monster, transformed by his grief over the death of Tybalt and his helplessness to abate the sorrow of his wife and daughter, furious that his attempts to help are being refused. She does not know this father and her tearful flight to the Friar’s cell for council seems less bratty and more the desperate cry for help of a young girl with nowhere to turn that Shakespeare surely intended.

Andrea Acuna, who plays Romeo, masterfully commands the gender-swapped role. Her crooked smirk is endearing, her physical ease tumbling and playing onstage with the other male characters is boyishly charming, and the chemistry between her and Heather Warren (Juliet) is natural, warm, and very sexual. The whining scenes where Romeo bemoans his love for Rosaline in the beginning of the play come across as funny, childish, innocent, naive; when Acuna first sees Warren at the masque, it is immediately clear that this is a Romeo transformed, not one who is abandoning his first love, but one who is recognizing that anything he felt before was a foolish crush. We see the meeting of the two lovers as a sense of two people who truly belong to each other immediately. There is no hesitancy from Warren, as often is played by actresses attempting to infuse Juliet with innocence in the “let hands as holy palmers do”; she and Acuna are perfectly matched in their teenaged eagerness for each other, which allows for a much more consistent Juliet throughout the piece. It is a roller-coaster for Juliet to go from innocent vestial virgin in the first scene to reckless desperate wanton and suicide just an hour later; her immediate passion and unafraid physical responsiveness made Warren’s Juliet much more of a matched partner in crime to Romeo. Watching the two of them in their balcony scene you don’t see Juliet as needing to be convinced to love but as a willing participant, sometimes even as the aggressor; she is not innocent but interested. Therefore we see the two of them much more as a doomed Bonnie and Clyde; obsessed with each other and praying for the best, in it together until the end. When they die together it is not stupid but the only way this story could end.

Mercutio, played with perfect vulgarity, arrogance, and charm by Kandace Crystal, is the clear high point of the play. She physicalizes her lines with such tomboyish carelessness that for a moment we are with her on the streets of Verona, just watching a bunch of boys talking dirty about girls. She teases mercilessly but when it comes time for her fight with Tybalt (another gender swap played expertly by Samantha Schmidt, with terrifying cold rages and flashing eyes) although the fight choreography is somewhat slow these actresses imbue every movement with dreadful and terrible urgency. We understand immediately that these are two extremely deadly foes with great respect for each other’s skill, yet furiously intent on proving their reputations on each other’s dead bodies. Too often the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio is played off as a playful scrap that goes awry, and that the fights in general between the Montagues and Capulets are harmless fun; not so here. Schmidt’s Tybalt is ice cold and when she delivers the fatal blow under Romeo’s arm, makes sure to drive in her knife not once but three times.

Emilee Zuniga as Lady Capulet is all grinning teeth and sneering disdain, an over the top but successful “Mother Knows Best” reprisal of the forgettable character that kept all eyes on her every time she took the stage. Ashley La Selva, as the nurse, is hilarious and heart-breaking by turns; her teasing of Juliet in the bulk of her scenes and the way she disgusts all her scene partners with her salivation over the nurse’s bawdy language leave us unprepared for her fury when she discovers the heartbroken Romeo on the ground crying in Friar Lawrence’s cell and demands he stand up, STAND. UP. Linda Benning as Friar Lawrence is a gentler, quieter version of the Friar than I have seen before, which deflates some of the overconfidence that can make Friar-hatched plans in Shakespeare so obnoxious. When she confesses everything in the wake of the two lovers’ deaths, we feel pity for her and want to give her a hug, telling her she did her best to help the hapless kids she demonstrates so much love for. Zuniga (Lady Capulet), LaSelva (Nurse) and Schaeg (Capulet) also hold nothing back in their genuine grief for Juliet; there were tears all around me the night I watched when one by one the three people who loved Juliet most discover her dead and pour out their hearts to her body even though we as the audience know Juliet is only sleeping.

Jacob Harr as Benvolio does a solid job in the comedy of the boys’ scenes, often as the butt of the jokes; he is an excellent straight man to the girls’ teasing, has good command of the language, and his size makes a fun contrast for the girls to jump on and tussle with. Nick Hessling as Paris is gentle with Juliet in their only scene together, coming off as gentlemanly and naive. Paola Kubelis as the Prince is commanding particularly in her final scene when she declares in her wrath that the Montagues and Capulets have not only cost themselves their heirs but her, her own kinsmen. Dennis Floyd as Montague is heartbreakingly sincere, and Cassandra Shellum keeps up with the language admirably in a wealth of small parts.

The production is not without flaw. The lighting throughout was distracting; LED strips line the sets and change color from blue (Montague) to green (Capulet) depending on who is in the scene. Since said characters are already dressed in those colors this hardly seems necessary; and even less so was the violent change to brilliant red when there was a fight or tempers flare, distracting from the actual action on the stage and the emotion the actors were portraying excellently. Also unnecessary was a field of stars pierced into the back wall which flashed during the balcony scene for some reason, even though Juliet had her back to her own chambers, and when the word “Stars” was mentioned in the final scenes. These stars also popped up several times by mistake in the performance I saw. The doubling of recognizable actors into small roles was also distracting; Ashley La Selva is just too recognizable once she’s been on the scene as the nurse to put her into a doublet and turn her into Balthasar or the later scenes as Lady Montague. I might have deleted some of these scenes and transposed the lines into another characters’ voice in order to eliminate some of the small roles and the need for swings. The fight choreography and the physicality in general was one of the only things that lacked follow-through and seemed staged; these great actors could have used some instruction or permission to complete basic things like a believably loud face slap.

Other than those minor flaws, Hewes has put together a thoroughly enjoyable, funny, raucous, romantic, and wholly original Romeo and Juliet; a fantastic cast, and an unforgettable performance. Smart staging and clever solutions to a small, low-ceilinged stage (chairs become a balcony, Juliet’s bed is also her crypt, and her shroud hides her from sight while other scenes carry on in front of her) are complemented by well-thought out costuming and props (most characters wore black tights, shirts, and boots so that actors could just toss on a gown or a doublet and easily switch genders; Paris, Mercutio and the Prince wear neutrals in contrast to the kinsmen of the two families; and actors used long knives as their “rapiers”, a smart prop choice in a small space); proof that with the right production team, budget and space matter very little in the face of such a solid cast. This is truly what community theatre should be: excellent actors contributing their talents and hard work toward a product they can all be proud of. Don’t miss.

Romeo and Juliet, runtime 2 hours 45 minutes with 15 minute intermission, is playing at the PowPac Community Theatre, 13250 Poway Road, Poway, CA, 92064; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.,  http://www.powpac.org/  for tickets.

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