Romeo and Juliet Finds the Fault In Our System

There is something really, really weird going on with Shakespeare Orange County's Romeo and Juliet. It has nothing to do with the wildly exuberant, frenetic first act, which features everything from full-on ballet folklórico troupes to hip-hop-infused Bard. It's not connected with the ginormous cast, which is clearly having a ball even before the show starts, as the audience-interactive preshow attests. It's nothing the author intended, as it's not alluded to anywhere in the script and, despite the countless variations of this saga throughout the centuries, probably has never been broached in any treatment—with the possible exception of West Side Story. And it is something that may distract more than enhance this production.

It's police brutality.

Three times, cops appear in the wake of disturbances in this modern updating: once, after a near-riot at a dance; twice more after stabbings. Each time, they show up with sirens wailing, loudspeakers blaring and two burly, baton-wielding cops (one dressed in riot gear) treating the crowd as crime suspects. On one of the occasions, an unseen assailant fires a shot, and a young girl drops to the stage, dead.

Commence the pearl-clutching, Shakespeare purists. Aggressive cops and random murders have nothing to do with the headstrong, idealistic title characters, nor the play's timeless theme of love and the ecstatic heights, as well as tumultuous lows, the emotion provokes, right?

Or do they?

This is a reach, admittedly, but faced with pondering that question or writing yet another standard (read: snooze-inducing) review of Romeo and Juliet, what's a poor theater critic to do? Okay, review: This is a wonderfully entertaining, creative show paced by a staggering performance from Ramón de Ocampo as Romeo and a virtuosic turn from Bo Foxworth as an older, more-seasoned Mercutio. The multicultural ensemble, which ranges from seasoned actors such as Shakespeare stalwart Michael Nehring to a gaggle of youngsters from the Orange County School of the Arts, is wholly committed and engaged. And, again, it's really fun, if really long—three-plus hours if you count the preshow. On the flip side, Nikki SooHoo's Juliet didn't do it for me. She unearths a lot of comedy from her character, but the noticeable difference in age—not years, necessarily, just presence between she and Romeo—and the fact that she sports a Hello Kitty backpack at one point makes the sexual tension less sensual than borderline creepy. And the fun is limited to the first act. The second act, which is where the bloodletting and tragedy come into play, is played pretty much straightforward, and while there is a lot of whooping and wailing, sighing and sobbing, the bright ideas seem to fizzle out, leaving us with Somber Shakespeare, which is always the most Boring Shakespeare.

Now, back to the pigs. Why do co-directors Mike Peebler and John Walcutt, who obviously understand Shakespeare—they've coaxed their actors to find an impressive amount of comedy both textually and physically in a show that usually has about as much laughs as three hours of C-Span—make such an overt nod toward not just law enforcement, but also heavy-handed law enforcement? Two possible thoughts. One: This is a genuinely multicultural Orange County production. It's staged in Garden Grove, is produced in association with the Vietnamese American Arts N Letters Association, and features SanTana's Relámpago del Cielo dance troupe along with apprentice actors from the OC School of the Arts. The huge cast skews young and ethnic, and when you think of Orange County law enforcement's checkered track record with young people of color, it's not hard to think that a show set in a contemporary setting that reflects the diversity of this county wants to really reflect one unfortunate aspect of that diverse experience.

Two: The authority in Shakespeare's text is mostly embodied in two characters. The secular authority is that of Juliet's father, Lord Capulet (Pedro Villareal); the spiritual is Nehring's Friar Laurence. But the Friar, though well-intentioned, is also rash; his plot to free the lovers leads to their joint suicide. And Juliet's father is a goddamn tyrant. Villareal is a physically imposing actor with a booming voice who viciously berates his daughter, threatens to whip her and even places his hands around his wife's neck. When viewed that way, with church and home ruled by despots or bunglers, is the state far behind? And is this bold, if perhaps unnecessary, directorial choice really a commentary that violence on the street is part of a broken system? That while it may bubble up from the bottom or trickle down from the top, it is a circular flow, feeding on itself, and is as impossible to keep corked as the flaming passion of star-crossed lovers? From Verona to Ferguson, did Occupy Shakespeare predate Occupy? 'Tis a thing to ponder 'til the morrow.

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