Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle: ROMEO & JULIET at IMPACT THEATRE--Rough, Bold, Alive

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday March 08, 2011 - 10:04:00 PM
Juliet (Luisa Frasconi) ponders her new love from her balcony in the Russian Mafia-themed R&J.
Cheshire Isaacs
Juliet (Luisa Frasconi) ponders her new love from her balcony in the Russian Mafia-themed R&J.

Since it’s about teenagers and ever since West Side Story, the text most taught and known is ROMEO AND JULIET. I have a personal relationship with the play. When I was a junior in high school, I cried when I finished it, and it hooked me on that fellow’s blank verse. I’ve directed it, and taught it, acted in it, and so I came with a critical eye to the performance at IMPACT THEATRE at La Val’s Pizza on Hearst. 

And then they wowed me. 

It ain’t your parents’ R&J, but a rough, bold, alive and “unholy” version--which is how this play has been evolving in film from Zefferelli to Baz Luhrman/Leonardo DiCaprio and on stage everywhere. 

I’ve seen much of the Bard that Impact has done over the last decade, even been in one, and in this production, Melissa Hillman seems to truly realize what I feel she’s always been striving for: a visceral story with real people that takes us past the poetry via the poetry. 

They begin in Russian and Russian accents and, by turns, turn into American English dialect. 

The Russian Rap music sounds particularly menacing and bodes misfortune. 

Dr. Hillman has cut the beginning “bite my thumb” clown play which was a blessing. Three stooges’ antics at the beginning of tragedy always bothered me; I guess it was to get the groundlings to shut-up and pay attention. Instead, it begins with a tableau of grotesque violence that reveals their Russian Mafiosi world. 

She truncates the extended dueling scenes, and makes the violence real: quick and messy. And with lots of “Manchester gore” (for you civilians, that’s stage blood). Not quite Grand Guignol, but they actually have a position of “blood captain” in the tech crew. Sometimes it gets out of hand with blood on the back of the shirt from a dagger stab in the front, but by and large it’s very effective, even eliciting an, “Oh, gross!” from a front-row subscriber. Dave Maier’s expert hand at blood-chillingly realistic stage violence is evident. 

A touch of naturalistic, ingénue nudity in the “the lark, the herald of the morn,” scene summons up the blood and propels us from a moment of erotic hopefulness down the dark avenue to the tomb. 

Anywhere that there is humor or bawdiness, it is brought to the fore. Mike Delaney as Peter, et. al., and his droll delivery in a Russian accent cracks up the audience and we anticipate his reappearing. Jordan Winer brings a wry Friar Laurence with engaging realism. Hillman encourages improvised commentary, e.g., at the end of an early scene wherein Romeo bemoans his obsession with fair Rosaline, Benvolio tosses off his exit line as, “Remember back when you had a dick?” It’s the wise-cracking put-downs of extended adolescence, and it offers relief through the mayhem and heartbreak. The after-party revelry of Mercutio, Benvolio, (Seth Thygesen), and the gang calling out to find Romeo is a drunk-scene right off the streets of Berkeley or Penn State on a football Saturday night. 

When reading the program before curtain, I raised my eyebrow at a female Mercutio, but Marilet Martinez plays Mercutio as a punk, pink-haired bi and bawdy suicide girl with the verve and crazinessthe role requires. Ms. Martinez has this dulcet, raspy alto that drives her verse. In this here-and-now setting, this cross-gender casting works particularly well. 

Ms. Hillman leaves untouched the extensive Nurse’s monologue since she has the talent of Bernadette Quattrone to interpret the nuances. Hillman comically short-hands the wedding, and effectively discards the pro- & epilogues, being bold enough to know that we’ve heard “star-cross’d” lovers enough so that it doesn’t have to spoken. 

Our title hero and heroine Luisa Frasconi & Michael Garrett McDonald are masterfully cast. This lovely young and real-looking fresh-faced duo steals your heart; in addition to their personal beauty, they are just so cute—and the quality of “cute” touches one ever more so than beauty. 

Luisa Frasconi looks all of fourteen and her acting has the quicksilver of teenage girls everywhere. Most every moment of her speaking is quick-paced yet wholly understandable and full of emotion. She is the perfect maiden in the flush of first-love, my all-time favorite Juliet, and I’ve seen a lot of ‘em. Watch this one—she may have a career. Her compulsion to kiss her Romeo is unstoppable and the chemistry twixt the two makes us believe in this teenage love story. Her only fault is attempting to speak through crying for long stanzas which clouds our understanding of the verse. 

Romeo arrives in a fashionable green hoodie and is young and unpracticed enough in his gestures to make us believe he is a kid, but has all the chops of an experienced verse actor. 

Both Ms. Frasconi and Mr. McDonald did their scansion and brought out the important syllables, which is the key to acting with verse. (When I asked Director Hillman how she worked it, she said that she eschews and fears scansion, but just talked to the actors about the text, connecting with the characters and making them real. When I talked with Michael McDonald and asked him where he studied, he replied that he took some course at Ohlone College and read a book on acting Shakespeare and scansion--which speaks volumes about studying acting.) 

Assembling a large cast that is somewhat equal in talent and able to speak the speech convincingly is a feat worth noting; moving them around efficiently on a 14 x 12 stage with a low hanging ceiling, the audience on two adjacent sides and no levels is a feat worth our admiration. 

It’s not perfect—some stage clustering and scene change stuttering—but the director paints effective pictures in simple strokes. Occasionally there is a moment when the emotional timbre is out of kilter: a Capulet that beats his women without showing rage, a much too cool Tybalt, or when the Friar who becomes as practical as an EMT when confronted with the slaughter in the tomb. There are many scenes played on the floor and out of sight of all but the front row, but that’s problematic in a tragedy where a lot of people fall down dead. But it holds the attention and moves the heart, the bodies in space are lovely and fearful, and the well-worn words are spoken afresh and natural and still take the breath away. 

It is—as are most of her company’s offerings—worth double the paltry sum of admission. And you can drink beer and eat pizza while watching, a benefit of which I imagine WS would have truly approved.

Impact Theatre presents Romeo and Juliet 

by William Shakespeare 

La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave, Berkeley, CA 94709 

Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays through March 26 

Directed by Melissa Hillman, costume design Miyuki Bierlein, scenic design Anne Kendall, blood technician Tunuviel Luv, fight direction Dave Maier, Russian consultant Helen Nesteruk, lighting design Jacqueline Steager, stage manager Diana Strachan, sound design Colin Trevor 

WITH: David Abad, Miyuki Bierlein, Mike Delaney, Luisa Frasconi, Ara Glenn-Johanson, Marilet Martinez, Joseph Mason, Jonah McClellan, Michael Garrett McDonald, Jon Nagel, Alexander Prather, Bernadette Quattrone, Seth Thygesen, David Toda, Reggie D. White, and Jordan Winer