Woman’s Will, the Oakland-based all-female Shakespeare company, is celebrating their tenth season—and tenth year of free Shakespeare in the parks—with Romeo and Juliet, beginning 1 p.m. this Saturday and Sunday, and the following weekend, July 14-15, at Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park.
Other local performances will be July 21 at F. M. Smith Park and the 22nd Avenue Dimond Park, both in Oakland. Aug. 9-10 at 8 p.m. will see the play staged in a real mortuary, Chapel of the Chimes, the columbarium at the end of Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, in the Mountain View Cemetery.
Director Erin Merritt commented on an all-female cast playing the most famous of love plays—and about how Woman’s Will approached one of the best-known of Shakespeare’s (or any playwright’s) plays.
“People forget pretty early on that the cast’s all women,” said Merritt. “We emphasize the text and the acting—and understanding what’s going on. At rehearsals in the parks, kids get off the monkey bars and watch us, so response so far is pretty good! There are a few lines that comment on being a man that come off funny, like Romeo saying, ‘OJuliet, you have made me effeminate.’ But there’s a reason why in some ways, women come off better. These characters are really smart. Most productions either cast a guy who’s a young hunk, or one who’s smart, and neither is comfortable with the other side of the character. Women are used to having both sides open.”
On the fame of Romeo and Juliet, Merritt remarked, “Everybody knows the plot, so we focus on how it happened, on how many times the story is headed for a happy ending, and how many bad choices make it a tragedy. If Romeo waited five minutes before killing himself, Juliet would be awake, not seemingly dead. After all, she finds his lips still warm!”
Merritt finds the answer to why so many bad choices that lead to tragedy in the relationship of generations of the play’s characters. “We’re never told what the original problem is, and we don’t care. I saw a CalShakes production that emphasized Friar Laurence as the linchpin of the plot, and realized how important a reconciliation was to him, and what a tragedy its failure was. The oldest generation, the Friar and the other older characters, want peace, for life to be happy in their final years. The middle generation, the parents, are the combative ones, who blame somebody else for whatever gets in their way, and seek revenge. And the young generation, Romeo and Juliet’s, is a little bit of both. They want everything to be wonderful and beautiful, but they have no perspective. Influenced by their parents, when something goes wrong, they lash out and kill—or die.”
The goal is to show the realization that “everybody is responsible for these deaths. When Romeo enters, and Tybalt’s ready to attack him, Capulet says, more or less, don’t kill him; I hear he’s a nice guy. What if he’d been advised to marry his daughter to the nice guy and gain a friend, not keep an enemy.”
Merritt emphasizes Shakespeare’s humor. “People forget how much funny stuff there is. And it’s a bawdy play—nothing extra, just what’s in the text. There are three teenage guys who act out with each other, are suggestive with the way they handle swords ... but it’s really all in the spirit behind the action, nothing explicit.”
There’s a study guide for young kids on the company’s website, with a comic book runthrough of the plot and discussion questions, as well as director’s notes and podcast interviews with the actors.
The actors cast by Woman’s Will mostly fit the age ranges of the three generations. “The cast is terrific,” said Merritt. “Some are actors we’ve worked with before, but there are also new people, and it’s the enthusiasm that carries it, the infectious energy of youth.”
ROMEO AND JULIET
Presented by Woman’s Will at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday this weekend and next at John Hinkel Park in Berkeley. Performances will continue at other locations through August. Admission is free, with donation requested. For locations and directions see www.womanswill.org or call 420-0813.