Romeo Juliet

Theater Review: Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Accomplished actors bring a playful energy to Shakespeare’s classic story of doomed love

Taha Mandviwala and Isabel Pask in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’

“Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs,” says Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. And, indeed, love is the headstrong passion propelling the fortunes of the main characters in the newest production from Santa Cruz Shakespeare.

The love between young Romeo and Juliet erupts within a centuries-old feud between Verona’s leading families, the Capulets and the Montagues. On the brink of maturity, the two offspring of opposing noble families, Romeo (Taha Mandviwala) and Juliet (Isabel Pask), throw themselves into a forbidden love, even as their elders—and cousins—fight to the death.

Shakespeare’s tale of tragic love plays with the uneasy tensions of hot-blooded youth and seasoned wisdom, experience and innocence, illusion and reality—and, ultimately, life and death.

Through the two-and-a-half hours of the play, audiences are invited to savor soaring flights of poetry, ill-advised love at first sight, youthful rebellion against parental authority, and, of course, classic tropes like the lusty companion, the ribald nurse, and the meddling priest.

As directed by Laura Gordon, the play’s powerful secondary characters—noblemen, servants, parents—are given plenty of room to strut and fret. Mercutio, one of Shakespeare’s cockiest men about town and Romeo’s best buddy, is turned loose (in the able form of Lorenzo Robert) to regale the entire stage, aisles, and audience with his nimble sexual swagger. In Roberts’ hands, Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech becomes a torrent of hip-hop virtuosity. A shorter leash might serve just as well, but opening night’s audience ate it up.

As Juliet’s good-hearted, no-nonsense, broad and bawdy Nurse, Patty Gallagher has her way, both with Shakespeare and with us. Clearly in her native element, Gallagher can turn a single syllable into a sonic Wikipedia of primal wisdom. And once again, the mere sight of Tommy A. Gomez as Juliet’s father Capulet, is enough to quicken the pulse of the outdoor amphitheater. Indignant at his daughter’s refusal to marry the suitor he has selected, Gomez’s Capulet unleashes a torrent of rage and invective so tart and compelling that we can taste his wrath. Clone this man!

Mike Ryan as Friar Lawrence brings clarity and reason into the rash scenario of two young lovers demanding to be united in matrimony. Mandviwala is such a graceful and persuasive actor that his Romeo often penetrates clichés this story has endured over the centuries. Dashing and athletic—though Romeo is destined to be “fortune’s fool”—he literally climbs up to Juliet’s balcony for a kiss, and then somersaults his way down again. Swash and buckle!

The production provides us the spectacle of women brandishing swords and knives in expert duels and street scuffles—notably the brilliant swagger of Nia Kingsley as Romeo’s cousin Benvolio, and the taunting toughness of Maggie Adams McDowell as Juliet’s cousin Tybalt—and I can envision a production with the central roles reversed. Mandviwala’s beauty could create a smoldering Juliet, with the stalwart Pask (here playing Juliet) an earnest Romeo.

The idea of love enflames these two even more than love itself. But it’s enough to use against the iron wills of their warring parents. And for a while, it succeeds, until fate steps in, and—well, you know how it ends.

Costumes by B. Modern provide much to fill the eye—the gorgeous actors provide the rest.

A full moon shining high above the stage lent a scenic grace note to the premiere performance.

Laced with the bristle of love/hate dynamics, Romeo and Juliet enfolds the ironic tragedy within a tissue of playful energy.

Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet runs’ through Sept. 2 at The Grove in DeLaveaga Park.

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