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THROWDOWN : Lord Capulet and the boys get ready to rumble in a 'magical' performance of 'Romeo and Juliet' at UCSC's Redwood Glen.

War and Love in the Glen

Shakespeare Santa Cruz makes the much-rehashed 'Romeo and Juliet' fresh again without resorting to cheap gimmicks

By Christina Waters

Last Saturday night we sat spellbound as two attractive young people fell madly, crazily in love right before our eyes. It was literally the oldest, best-known plot in Western literature--a scene that has spawned a million soap operas, hundreds of films, untold verses of bad poetry, scores of Hallmark cards--and yet last Saturday night it felt and sounded absolutely fresh. There is probably no higher praise that can be offered up to one of the ripest cliché-generators in all drama--the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. Every word, every hormonally charged atom of awkward, reckless, consuming passion was there, brand-new and as powerful as Shakespeare intended. Need I add that this season's production of Romeo and Juliet is required viewing? Especially to savor swooning Juliet (Caitlin FitzGerald) and her head-over-heels Romeo (Charles Pasternak), perched high in the redwood glen. Truly their "love is a smoke, raised with the fume of sighs," and when the two take over the stage, the production casts the sort of spell that YouTube can only wish for.

Director Kim Rubenstein--whose uproarious Much Ado About Nothing was the toast of last year's festival--obviously knows a thing or two about the aching, joyful silliness of falling in love. Her touch with the romantic pair is practically seamless. She appears to have started them up and then allowed them to unfurl. While FitzGerald looks youthful enough to play a believable teenage maiden, it is her transformation into womanhood that drives the play's tenderest tragedy. Enhanced by a remarkable range, FitzGerald's Juliet is funny, fierce, dreamy, playful and gorgeous--in rapid, yet believable succession.

Usually R&J belongs to the men, all strutting sexiness and fighting over the least unguarded glance. But for my money, FitzGerald reveals the core and courage of one of Shakespeare's most urgently written characters. When this "bright angel" is onstage you cannot take your eyes off her. As Romeo, the charismatic Pasternak ignites genuine chemistry with his Juliet, burning up the stage (and thousands of calories as well), before his vocal work devolved into shouting. Pay special attention as well to the sly and lusty performance by Saundra McClain as Juliet's wise and watchful Nurse.

But on to the men, who after all are called upon to play, prance, fight, brag, drink, dance and die until, in the end, the two warring Italian families resolve to drop their bitter feud over the grave of their children (ravishing final effect, by the way). Mercutio, who gets to swagger through some of the choicest lines of the play, is finessed with obvious relish by the edgy, preening Stephen Bel Davies (I look to him to knock us out later in the season's production of Burn This.)

Led by Davies, the supporting players representing the houses of Capulet (Juliet's people) and Montague (Romeo's) announce the postmodern "Dharma Initiative" set and costume theme. Multiple time zones, historical epochs and cultural origins blend, sometimes incoherently though ultimately pleasantly, onstage. The fight scenes, incidentally, were not only confident, but violently believable. Kudos to fight master Geoffrey Alm.

There are a few unremarkable performances (some seem to be consequences of erratic casting, others will respond nicely to the fine-tuning that a few more performances will bring), and--on opening night--some flatness in pacing (slight editing of the text might not have hurt either). But the always-magical glen setting cast its spell on a full house of veteran Shakespeare Santa Cruz lovers as well as newcomers, who all enjoyed themselves hugely. As did a pair of huge black crows who own this neck of the woods and whose atmospheric calls and cries launched opening night's performance.

Given a minimalist set and unassuming costume design, this production of Romeo and Juliet lets the players and the shimmering words do the work of enchantment. And they do! "Beauty too rich for use." And then some.

ROMEO AND JULIET, by William Shakespeare, plays through Aug. 31 in the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, UC-Santa Cruz. Three hours, one intermission. Dress warmly. 831.459.2159;

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