ROMEO AND JULIETAby William Shakespeare
Cara Mia Theatre Company
Directed by David Lozano
Scenic Design – Jessie Zarazaga
Costume Design – Ryan Matthieu Smith
Lighting Design – Linda Blasé
Props Design – Rodney Garza
Fight Choreography – Jeffrey Colangelo
Julieta – Mimi Davila
Romeo – Ruben Carrazana
Nurse – Frida Espinosa-Müller
Mercutio – Ivan Jasso
Tybalt / Father Capulet – Eddie Zertuche
Benvolio / Paris – Jeffrey Colangelo
Lady Capulet – Janielle Kastner
Prince – Brandon Sterrett
Ensemble – Natalia Dubrov
Photo Credit: ©Adolfo Cantu Villareal & ©Emily McCartney - TZOM Films
Reviewed Performance: 12/13/2013
Reviewed by Kristy Blackmon, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Romeo and Juliet has never been one of my favorite Shakespearean works. It’s too simpering and saccharine and its tragedy always seems as though it would be too easily avoided by many of the Bard’s other, cleverer characters. Despite this year’s film adaptation by Carlo Carlei (which I have not yet seen), the play seems to have fallen out of vogue in favor of the truly great Shakespearean revenge or political tragedies.
Cara Mía advertised this production as Romeo and Julieta, slightly Hispanicizing the title and leaving no doubt that it would be a performance in the tradition of Chicano theatre with which I started a long love affair when living in Los Angeles in the days surrounding 9/11. The genre’s acceptance of events without easy explanation helped me somehow navigate the emotional waters of that time, when the world changed in a single day and no one had a ready answer for why. Miracles and mysticism and events that defy the logical approach our contemporary culture uses to understand the world - these sort of themes have always been evident in Latino literature and drama, the legacy of a culture that gave the world magical realism.
This mysticism was very much in evidence at the Latino Cultural Center on Friday night. Original music composed by S-Ankh Rasa was a marvelous addition. Primal percussion beats and eerie, electrified notes played behind the chatter of the audience settling into their seats. The representational set, designed by Jessie Zarazaga, was outfitted in muted, neutral colors and consisted of varying levels of wooden platforms and one prominent catwalk that protruded beyond the stage into the first row of seats. Lighting Designer Linda Blasé kept the tones warm and soft. Though there were moments when the lighting could have added an extra artistic layer and I missed some sort of flair, no actor went unlit during the entire show. I’ll take action that isn’t obscured by actors missing their lighting marks over fancy displays every time. With all of the other risks Director David Lozano took with this show, he and Blasé can be forgiven playing it safe with the lighting.
As the play began, actors mimed a rich community: an old-world grandmother with her granddaughter shared the stage while a super modern and glamorous woman minced along on four inch heels. As the miming grew more detailed, I realized I was watching the opening lines of the play instead of hearing them. It was an immensely successful gamble as the streets of “fair Verona” gave way to a dark battleground where “civil hands” turned upon each other. The silent action continued beyond the opening monologue with the menacing members of the Montague and Capulet gangs engaging in a beautiful swordfight. The duelists danced around one another and the stage in the first of many displays of masterful choreography, gliding in ferocious grace that cast a spell broken only by the entrance of Benvolio, played by the show’s choreographer, Jeffrey Colangelo. It was a delightful, visually gorgeous trick that served to immediately thrust the audience into the action without having to wade through difficult dialogue, and it cut significant time off of the opening. Lozano used this trick throughout the production to eliminate cumbersome and unnecessary dialogue and move straight into the action. It reduced the run time of the show by nearly half, re-proportioned the roles so that key characters had more stage time, and kept the pacing moving at a quick clip.
Shakespeare loved his magic, and Lozano’s approach to Romeo and Juliet brought out the magical elements that are often glossed over by mainstream productions. Rodney Garza as Friar Laurence was a quiet source of mystical power in his best moments. In another example of manipulating the script (and cutting a significant amount of small talk) while injecting a mystic feel using choreography, Lozano had the players move in slow motion during the lovers’ first meeting at the ball. Upstage, revelers danced slowly and sinuously in a pagan-like celebration of excess and debauchery while Romeo and Julieta drew out the moment of their first touch. In one of the rare instances where Lozano significantly slowed down the action, Romeo and Julieta drew together with excruciating hesitancy, circling one another in a dance of their own that amplified the breathless anticipation and excitement of teenage love, until it was all I could see. When their fingers finally hooked, I realized I was tense in my seat.
Perhaps the most goose bump inducing moment, however, was the death scene of Mercutio, beautifully played by Ivan Jasso. Apart from Frida Espinosa-Müller as Juliet’s nurse, Jasso’s was the performance of the night. His Mercutio was the embodiment of teenage contrasts, alternating between crassness and tenderness, humor and violence. The air was thick with preternatural overtones when he repeatedly called down “a curse on both your houses!” This was one of the instances when I wished Lozano had used lighting to increase the impact of the moment, but Mercutio’s horror as he realized he faced death was so powerful and his sense of betrayal so clear and strong that the full importance of the curse rang true. As the tragedy unfolded, I couldn’t shake the memory of Jasso in that moment.
Like many dramatic works in the Latino tradition, Cara Mía’s Romeo and Julieta was rife with stock characters that threw mainstream America’s perception of Chicanos into a spotlight. Costumes by Ryan Matthieu Smith helped tremendously in this regard, as each character was outfitted in spot-on costumes that reflected their trope. The boys strutted around in baggy jeans and urban-design t-shirts, while Juliet’s innocence and youth were emphasized through mary janes, leggings, and tunics. The Nurse’s old-fashioned dress and beautifully crafted lace scarf embodied her old-world, traditional nature. The Capulet parents were perhaps the most fun. Lady Capulet’s movie star glamour reflected a Latina flair for the dramatic with tall heels and huge pieces rhinestone studded costume jewelry. Sr. Capulet’s gangster duds were smooth and immaculate. The smoking jacket he wore while tearing into Juliet in the second half was awesome.
Srs. Montague (uncredited) and Capulet (Eddie Zertuche) were portrayed as cartel bosses, complete with matching panama hats, limps, and swords housed in canes. They were very much the same person: intolerant, violent, and unwavering in their hatred right up until the play’s final moments. Both actors gave good performances, though Zertuche’s Sr. Capulet added unnecessary volume to the cacophonous second half of the show.
Janielle Kastner’s Lady Capulet was another instantly recognizable stock character, the glamorous and dramatic telenovela star. Never without her heels, her bling or her tight costumes, Kastner was perfectly over-the-top as Juliet’s mother, highlighting many of the comedic notes hidden within this tragic play. Zertuche, Kastner, and Espinosa-Müller as the Nurse, had the audience in guffaws during Juliet’s fake death scene as they wailed and shook their fists at the sky.
Lady Capulet is a hard woman but Kastner portrayed her as a woman caught between obeisance to the traditional and often violent patriarchal social structures that are still evident in America’s Latino communities and a near-desperate need for the beauty and luxury that serve as currency of power for modern Western women. Kastner gives the character a fierce determination whether she is shopping, entertaining and primping or attempting to manipulate Juliet into an advantageous marriage to the rich and noble Paris. Kastner counterbalanced Lady Capulet’s seeming coldness by showing evidence of true emotional conflict as she watched her husband verbally and physically abuse their defiant daughter when she rebuffs the marriage offer. As Sr. Capulet thundered away in one long, near crazed repudiation of Juliet, Lady Capulet stood frozen behind him; though subtle, Kastner’s flashing eyes and clenched fists showed that Lady Capulet was torn between her wish to protect her child and her dutiful adherence to her husband’s authority. For me, it was one of the most powerful and successful moments of the show.
All of the boys in both the Montague and Capulet gangs embody the urban Latino thug stereotype well, helped in no small part by the dialogue itself. They capitalized upon the verse to give the impression of street rappers, letting the rhythm of the language inform their tenor and movement. At times, it became slightly monotonous. Some of Romeo’s soliloquies in particular had a hypnotic effect. However, it had the surprising benefit of adding elements of grace and depth to what would otherwise be just another character trope. As Benvolio (Colangelo) and Mercutio (Jasso) banter back and forth, their dialogue took on the feel of a rap battle, lending a playful and familiar cultural reference and serving as a means of making the text relevant to modern audiences. In other, more intense scenes, it imparted a sense of poetry, softening the characters just enough to give them some interesting added layers. Tybalt (Eddie Zertuche), radiating hatred and rage, managed to retain a sense of nobility as he threw vile insults at Mercutio and rebuffed Romeo’s entreaties for peace. It was a small part, but Zertuche played it well. He and all of the boys displayed a command over the difficult language, never stuttering or tripping over unfamiliar words or rhythms. Once again, Colangelo’s fight choreography rose to the occasion, reflecting the characters themselves. Romeo’s frenzied, enraged attack of Tybalt stood in stark contrast to the graceful duel between Mercutio and Tybalt that ended in Mercutio’s death.
Lozano’s leveraging of stock characters was nowhere more successful than with the role of Juliet’s beloved Nurse, played by Frida Espinosa-Müller. This is one of the best roles in the Shakespearean canon, in my opinion, and Espinosa-Müller was brilliant in it. The Nurse is a vital counterpoint to the undiluted naiveté and passion of the star-crossed lovers. Cranky, opinionated and emotionally manipulative, she is the ultimate lovable nag, the mother-figure Lady Capulet can never be. Espinosa-Müller imbued the character with old-world traits, speaking at least half of the time in Spanish and the other half in heavily accented English. She had not only the emotional but also the physical range to pull this off, radiating energy every moment she was on stage. Espinosa-Müller remained focused and engaged with the action whether she was part of it or just a witness to it; her hands were never at rest and her body reflected her state of mind at all times, rocking back and forth in agitation or hunching in fear. This was an altogether talented cast but Espinosa-Müller ’s was the standout performance of the night for me.
As Julieta and Romeo, Davila and Carrazana did one thing exceptionally well that I greatly appreciated: they did not try to mask how young and, frankly, stupid the title characters are. Many productions of this play give the young lovers a maturity they do not possess. Despite their poetry, despite the fact that Juliet is being prepared for marriage and Romeo is exiled for murder, these two are not the older-than-their-years, desperate young adults they are often portrayed to be, and Lozano deserves major kudos for not shying away from their shallowness and idiocy. Carrazana played Romeo as a moody, rash boy who cries at the drop of a hat. He did not hide Romeo’s weakness or shallow nature behind a romantic façade; this was not a Romeo to make the female audience members sigh with longing. Carrazana’s Romeo was real and recognizable, a teenage boy given far too much unsupervised leeway to make grievous mistakes.
Davila’s Julieta was flighty, spoiled and demanding. She vacillated between rapturous moments of puppy love and moments of childish stubbornness where it seemed she stopped just short of a full-blown tantrum. Davila gave us a few indications of Julieta’s impending maturity, such as right before she drank the drug that made her seem dead to her parents where she seemed to recognize that she was displaying seriously questionable judgment. However, by and large Davila’s youthful characteristics matched that of Carrazana, and it served her well. Every time Julieta outlined one of her harebrained schemes in a soliloquy, Davila showed how incredibly shortsighted her thinking was, but she also gave us glimpses of the single-minded determination that would have made Julieta a formidable young woman. In those moments, we saw the influence of Kastner’s Lady Capulet in Julieta. Davila’s performance made me wish I could have seen Julieta as an adult. Both Davila and Carrazana were appropriately giggly and giddy in their motion, clearly showing a marked immaturity in their physicality that had nothing to do with body type and everything to do with paying strict, unyielding attention to body language. They flung themselves at one another with abandon throughout, but their childishness was far more effective in the first half of the show.
By playing up the youth of Romeo and Juliet, Lozano may not have allowed adequate room for them to feel the necessary emotions to propel the desperate, selfish, suicidal action of the last acts. It felt as though Lozano as well as both actors were reluctant to risk the audience’s active dislike of the two characters and so they portrayed Romeo and Juliet as having a nobility of character that wasn’t quite believable. Still, Cara Mía deserves recognition for their embrace of Romeo’s and Juliet’s youth as a primary driver of the plot.
Where the quick pacing in the first half allowed for a good bit of high-quality comedy, in the second act it contributed to a near frantic and unceasing high energy that resulted in copious amounts of screaming. The Nurse screamed when informing Juliet of Tybalt’s death. Juliet screamed her undying devotion to Romeo. Romeo screamed his distress at being exiled. The Friar screamed at him to calm down. An enraged Senor Capulet screamed his daughter into submission. Juliet screamed at his abuse. By the time the Capulet parents and the Nurse come upon Juliet’s drugged body, the audience was almost too numb to appreciate the intentional, melodramatic comedy of the scene. One exception to the volume was Colangelo who was hysterical as Paris, a nerdy gringo who understandably makes Juliet’s skin crawl. I’ve never seen this sort of take on the character, and I thought it was very successful. Colangelo was smarmy and self-confident despite his geeky demeanor, giving a whole new spin to the arrogance that is written into the role of Paris.
Despite the challenges (and immense volume) of the second half, Lozano turned out a successful Chicano production of a Shakespearean classic that compromised neither Cara Mía’s cultural legacy nor the original intent of the play, which is no small feat. In his Director’s Note, Lozano writes that Romeo and Juliet is “a Tragedy in the tradition of the great plays of Western literature such as Oedipus Rex, The Bakkhai, and King Lear.” While I can’t agree with this assessment, I think Lozano did an admirable job with Cara Mía’s first Shakespearean production. This was my first exposure to Cara Mía but it definitely will not be my last.
Cara Mía Theatre Co., Latino Cultural Center, 2600 Live Oak St.
Dallas, Texas 75204
****Final week through December 21st
Thursday – Saturday at 8:00 pm
Tickets are $15.00 general admission, $12.00 students and seniors. All tickets on Thursday are $10.00. Group rates available. Call 214-516-0706 for more info or purchase tickets at www.caramiatheatre.org.