Romeo and Juliet

The heart of this Tejano-style retelling is not the lovers but the people around them

Arts Review
Photo courtesy of Kirk Tuck

Romeo and Juliet

Sheffield Hillside Theater, through June 7

Running time: 2 hr, 10 min

If you're going to stage Shakespeare outdoors on a breezy summer night, Romeo and Juliet seems a fitting show to stage. What could be more gorgeous than young love beneath the moonlight? This famous tragedy is also a love story, sí? Not necessarily.

Austin Shakespeare's current production might have you rethinking the play's focus. Not because of the Mexican-American setting that has infused the script with bilingual flair. Rather, the rethinking comes from the powerful performances of the supporting cast. The strength of this production lies not with the lovers but with their caretakers: the nurse, the friar, Romeo's best friend, Juliet's father – the people we watch as they watch these young lovers destroy themselves.

Austin Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is set in 1940s Texas. Guided by Celeste Guzman Mendoza (playing Lady Capulet), the Spanish-speaking performers incorporate colloquial Tejano-style Spanish throughout the text. It works quite well, maintaining the rhythm of the verse, highlighting the humor of the original words, and strengthening the play's atmosphere. This success is a testament to the translation effort and to the fluidity of Shakespeare's language. As the audience settles in, the play's events begin churning at Juliet's quinceañera.

As directed by Artistic Director Ann Ciccolella, the production is full of energy and light, but it lacks precision. The crowd scenes are chaotic. A live band provides music, and yet canned music is periodically employed, creating an incongruity. The fight scenes go on so long that our eyes are allowed to drift to the bystanders – a problem that's echoed in the larger play: Our eyes drift away from the star-crossed lovers. Veering toward the melodramatic and the unintentionally comedic, Juliet (Gwendolyn Kelso) and Romeo (Collin Bjork) try too hard to play convincing teenagers. The bulk of their lines are delivered in either half-laughter or half-sob. Their passion lacks gravitas and chemistry, so one begins to look elsewhere for the heart of the play. Fortunately, it can be found in the supporting characters, particularly the friar (Ben Wolfe) and the nurse (Eva McQuade); they keep the play of the play afloat and yet manage to anchor it as well, alternating between lighthearted and grave as need be. Other standouts are the melodious Mercutio (Justin Scalise) and the powerful Lord Capulet (Ernesto "Roze" Rosas).

In paying attention to the stories surrounding the main story, one begins to rethink this famous love. Death and violence cloud joy from the very beginning. The friar warns Romeo, "You pout upon your fortune and your love: Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable." Both Romeo and Juliet are prone to threaten or consider suicide as a first solution. Romeo fears Juliet's beauty has made him effeminate. He impulsively kills two men over the course of the evening. In the famous tableau of the dead lovers at the end of the play, there is a third body in the room – that of Paris, who Romeo kills a few seconds before taking his own life. Particularly in this production, Romeo and Juliet is no more a love story than Othello is a buddy movie.

Austin Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet will provide you with a fun and thoughtful evening at the park. There were not many tears shed; the production is often more amusing than it is heartbreaking. But rethinking a familiar tale is exactly what an infusion of a new energy – such as this bilingual melding – allows us to do. As always, the intrigue of a play lies with those characters who are most compelling. Sometimes that's the hero, and sometimes it's the messenger.

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