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‘Romeo and Juliet’ makes for good night at theater By John Angell Grant Daily Planet correspondent The feud between a Nazi family and a Jewish family in 1930s Germany provides an updated framework for the strong Subterranean Shakespeare production o

By John Angell Grant Daily Planet correspondent
Saturday June 23, 2001

The feud between a Nazi family and a Jewish family in 1930s Germany provides an updated framework for the strong Subterranean Shakespeare production of “Romeo and Juliet” currently running at LaVal’s in Berkeley. 

Added to this, director Yoni Barkan has lifted the opening scene from the musical "Cabaret" and put it near the top of his show. Shakespeare’s story, then, becomes a play within a play, set inside a decadent nightclub environment. 

The result is a vivid and rich production, and an excellent example of grassroots theater at its best. 

Although this production of "Romeo and Juliet" contains emotional political images of the Nazi/Jewish conflict in 1930s Germany, as the evening unfolds the equally powerful humanity of Shakespeare’s story of star-crossed lovers takes center stage. 

The result is a striking reminder of the paradox between political life and daily human life, and a reminder of how irrelevant politics can be in the lives of people just trying to live out their personal humanity. 

The Sub Shakes production opens with a short, moving scene between Lord and Lady Montegue – Romeo’s parents, in 1930s period dress – as they perform a wordless, heart-felt Jewish candle ceremony at one side of the otherwise darkened theater. 

In abrupt cinematic fashion, the production then cuts to the noisy opening of "Cabaret," with the sleazy, sexual emcee (Jeffrey Meanza) singing the famous song from that show ("Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome!"), and inviting the audience to enjoy a night of debauch in his S&M-flavored nightclub. 

The story then fades to the opening of Shakespeare’s play – a street fight between the feuding Montegue and Capulet families. Fiery Capulet cousin Tybalt (Pete Caslavka) stirs up trouble on the street, dressed as a Nazi brownshirt complete with swastika armband and skinhead haircut. 

The emcee lounges on a sofa at the side of the theater and watches the show, as star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet meet at a masquerade ball, fall in love, and begin their tragic journey to death and destruction. 

Famous Broadway and Hollywood director Elia Kazan once said that 90 percent of directing lies in the casting. Director Barkan has obviously cast this current show with great thought. He gets effective performances from all of his actors. 

Brendan Wolfe is an intense, hormone-crazed Romeo, suddenly distracted by his sexual energy away from the carousing, good old times with his male buddies. Maureen Coyne stands out as Juliet’s gabby, excitable, playful nurse. Her friendly, bawdy relationship with Juliet lubricates that young girl for love. 

Bruce Moody is both dirty-minded and tantrum-throwing as Juliet’s father Capulet. The violence in this Nazi story flows easily from his sadomasochistic authoritarianism. 

Meanza pulls a strong focus as the leering, oversexed emcee, obviously taking his cue from the Sam Mendes/Alan Cummings revival of “Cabaret” that has made such a splash in recent years. 

Karen Goldstein is a crabby Lady Capulet, more concerned with the cotton balls between her toes as she rigs her make-up, than with her daughter. You can see why Juliet doesn’t like her mother. 

Armand Blasi is very effective as Friar Lawrence, the churchman who tries unsuccessfully to help the two wayward lovers.  

In this production, we first meet the Catholic Friar Lawrence removing his phylacteries. But, hey, life is a cabaret, my friend. And this is a play within a play. 

Nicole DuPort is a beautiful Juliet. She seems a less skillful actor than some of the others, but her simplicity with the language, and her youthful, unmodulated diction works well for the character. She and Wolfe have a hot chemistry. 

Pete Caslavka has staged some of the best fight choreography I’ve ever seen in the theater. The opening street brawl between the Montegues and Capulets starts with swords, and quickly turns to very realistic punching and kicking. There’s a lot of hurting going on in this show. 

Romeo’s slow knifing of Juliet’s cousin Tybalt is like an act of sexual penetration – a reminder of how much this play is about the polar struggles in young men between love and violence. 

Jackie Bendzinski and Amoreena Vera have cooked up intriguing period costumes, with a slightly modernized, stylized feel – perfect for the world of imagination inside this cabaret. Dustin O’Neal’s black and red set manages both heaven and hell. 

Barkan’s effective sound design includes Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” “Putting on the Ritz,” various 1930s dance band tunes, and some 1960s jazz. 

A lot of components come together to make this show work well. Maestro Barkan is a talented director. Last June at LaVal’s he staged a very effective production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a rave in the woods. This show is even better. 

If you’re looking for a strong evening of grassroots theater, look no further. 

Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for "American Theatre," "Back Stage West," "Callboard," and many other publications. E-mail him at