This is "Romeo and Juliet"?
Where are the graceful stone balconies of fair Verona? What is this stark metal grid? And when the prince--not a prince at all, but a punk high priestess in strapless black velvet packing a pistol--strolls out and bids those with patient ears to attend the sad story about to unfold, what is there to do but settle back and expect the unexpected?
And there is plenty of the unexpected in Cal State Fullerton's "Romeo and Juliet." Director Elizabeth R. Bell, a student in the master of fine arts directing program at the university, has brought the Shakespeare classic into the '80s with a skillful blend of old and new, of traditional and audacious. Tradition is represented in the faithful adaptation of the text, the vivid sword fights and the Renaissance music played by an on-stage ensemble. The audacity is seen in the contemporary punk-flavored costumes and in some daring casting that puts females in male roles.
The results are startling, fresh and rewarding. Bell does makes stretches that don't quite reach; Friar Laurence, for example, seems to get lost in the time travel. But the boldness of the approach often illuminates the text, and the contemporary visual clues often make it easy to focus on the words themselves. When Mercutio wants a disguise to sneak into a party on enemy turf ("Give me a case to put my visage in"), he whips out a pair of sunglasses. The "prince" spends the play perched in a tower overlooking the action, maybe even slightly bored; she already knows how the story comes out.
The acting shows some similarly bold choices. These characters' motives are clear; whether Shakespeare intended all of them is open to debate, but Bell and her cast make some strong cases. It's refreshing to find surprises in characters that have been around for almost 400 years. Naturally, changing the sex of some of the characters has quite a bit to do with that. With a female Benvolio (Wendy Robinson) making eyes at a heavy-metal Mercutio (Greg Neagle), there's a new heat in the old gang. These punks are idle youths, equally ready for a good time or a fight. (Shades of "West Side Story" here.)
Oh yes, there's also Romeo and Juliet. And there's the rub. They basically remain anchors of tradition in this free-floating time warp. There are no startling revelations here, perhaps as a nod to the timelessness of their story. Indeed, these performances--and even the costumes and hair styles--appear cautious in contrast to the vivid choices that surround them.
This Juliet (Juliane Gorham) is extraordinarily self-possessed for a girl not yet 14; she's more sensible than impetuous, her new-found passion curbed by introspection as she addresses the night sky from her balcony. Romeo (Bodie C. Newcomb) gets more caught up in his ardor--literally--dangling from her balcony like a monkey, an adolescent gone slightly goofy with love. Yet the giddiness vanishes when Romeo's passion turns to grief and he recalls with a chilling deliberation a certain apothecary shop and the fatal potions on its shelves.
The storytelling is kept uncluttered and brisk. The clean, functional, all-purpose set (designed by Charles L. Messerly) allows scenes to flow into one another with a sense of urgency, and the live music also provides some graceful transitions. The sword fights, choreographed by John Robert Beardsley, are remarkable for their physicality, dissolving into fistfights, then back again into deadly swordplay.
"Romeo and Juliet" will play through Sunday on the Main Stage of the CSUF campus, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Information: (714) 773-3371.