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[whitespace] Romeo and Juliet Kids Do the Darndest Things: Dominic Comperatore and Holly Twyford play Shakespeare's famous young lovers.

Photograph by David Lee

'Romeo and Juliet' rocks the boat of tribal intolerance

By Sarah Phelan

WE ALL KNOW the story of Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed young lovers who end up dead together in a cold and drafty tomb, right? Shakespeare Santa Cruz Director Tom Prewitt brings new insight to this classic tale by shifting the focus from puppy love--a five-day romance between two lust-driven teenagers--to the tragic consequences of inflexible thinking.

But this production is neither preachy nor boring. Set in a deliberately unspecified, yet distinctly postmodern, time frame--a world controlled by habit, ritual bondage, arbitrary laws and the undisputed word of the elders--Prewitt's Romeo and Juliet is fast-paced and always compelling. Using carnival season as a backdrop, Prewitt intimates the approach of death while fully exploiting the innate bawdiness of Shakespeare's text--exactly the kind of decadence the Puritans came to the United States to escape.

As it happens, sexploitation can be risky business, at least in PC Santa Cruz. During intermission, an anonymous theatergoer confessed to being shocked by liberal use of the terms "whore" and "wench," not to mention the emphasis on hip gyrations and thumb-sucking motions--words and gestures she did not recall in film or televised versions.

Point well taken. America is more prudish when it comes to sex, particularly when compared to 16th-century England, an era when people were not only bawdily sexist but also openly intolerant of anything not in keeping with tribal conventions. Without this sexism and tribal intolerance, the final tragic and corpse-strewn scene would not make sense.

Interestingly enough, Shakespeare stepped well outside the box of Elizabethan ethics in this tale, first by condoning filial disobedience and second by blaming the lovers' suicides on their custom-bound parents. And by reducing the original age of the lovers, Shakespeare ensured that his audiences would be older than the doomed couple and consequently nostalgic for their lost idealism and disillusioned by too much compromise. In other words, we've been set up to empathize with the doomed lovers before the show even begins.

New York, New York

DOMINIC COMPERATORE'S tousled Italianate looks coupled with Holly Twyford's East Coast twang result in a fairly credible Romeo and Juliet--albeit quite a bit older than Shakespeare's prescribed 16 and 14 years and despite their distinct New York sensibilities. In leather pants and chain-link accessories, Comperatore starts off (like any other street-fighting Adonis) in search of an outlet for his excess testosterone rather than serious commitment. Beguiled by Juliet's beauty, wit and honesty, our hitherto innuendo-spouting Romeo is never more likable than when he starts spinning romantic sonnets and making a lovesick fool of himself.

Romeo's friend, the wisecracking, pelvis-thrusting Mercutio--played to delicious excess by Colman Domingo--dominates the early scenes, particularly with his exaggerated bawdiness and fanciful Queen Mab speech. (There is a theory that Shakespeare was forced to "slaughter" this ebullient character, an event also signaling the play's descent into full-blown tragedy, in order to give other players room to strut their stuff.)

Gary Almagnac, looking very Santa Cruzan in sandals and gardening gear (not to mention the giant joint in his herb basket), is convincing as the increasingly desperate Friar Lawrence. And Andy Murray does a fine job as the ever-testier old Capulet while Amy Thone chills as the bloodthirsty and unsympathetic Lady Capulet. It's Michele Farr's drunken finesse as Juliet's garrulous and bigamy-promoting Nurse, however, that is most memorable.

Technical highlights? The masked ball in which time appears to stop; the techno-industrial soundtrack; the daring fight sequences; and the surreal effect created by plastic sheets tacked up on a wooden frame. Kudos to MaryBeth Cavanaugh for choreography, Robin Stapley for costume design, William Mark Hulings for fight direction and Robin Stapley for musical composition.

Shakespeare Santa Cruz's production of Romeo and Juliet runs through Aug. 29 in the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, Performing Arts, UCSC. Tickets are $19-$28. 459-2159

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From the July 21-28, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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