“For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”
We all know how this narrative turns out, how longstanding tribal hatred put the jinx on the forbidden relationship between these two archetypal lovers. Everyone in the world knows what you mean when you refer to a “Romeo and Juliet type of situation.”
Ah, but it’s all in the telling, and this year’s brilliant re-creation of Shakespeare‘s 420-odd-year-old tale at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, an outdoor amphitheatre in Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon, sets it in modern-day East Jerusalem. This multicultural city straddling Israel/Palestine is the epicenter of one of the world’s oldest conflicts, between the Muslims and the Jews. Like so many other epics of national and ethnic loathing, this one too begs to ask, Is this entirely necessary? Is there not some other way? Are we doomed to learn nothing from these legendary lovers who somehow through the vicious strife discovered a path toward tolerance, acceptance and love?
It’s significant to recall that the Theatricum has its roots in the 1950s McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist, when banned actor Will Geer created the venue as a haven for blacklisted actors. The theatre is known for its productions that frame contemporary issues through the lens of classic literature. Will Geer’s daughter Ellen Geer directs; she has revised the play accordingly for her modern-day conceit.
“By setting this great play in East Jerusalem, the cultural and religious differences explode and deepen the text, revealing what the next generation has to face,” says Ellen Geer. “Daily, young people negotiate through what was not created by them, but by parents and cultural differences that they have been brought upon with since birth. To honor parents is all young people want. With this kind of strife, our children suffer.”
The outlines of the play conform to the Bard’s familiar text. The play opens at an East Jerusalem checkpoint where an outbreak of the old feud between the Capulets and the Montagues takes place. Israeli soldiers behave brusquely with their batons.
I later learned that the devotedly pro-Israel Simon Wiesenthal Center had registered its objections to the staging while still in rehearsal, met with the company, and that the original guns with which the Israeli soldiers were equipped onstage had now been eliminated in favor of the nightsticks. “We do not believe in censorship,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center said. “But this production has degraded a classic play into a heavy-handed anti-Israel propaganda platform” rife with “Israel bashing.”
In a June 3rd letter from the Theatricum Botanicum thanking the Wiesenthal Center for its input, the company wrote, “We are deeply impressed by the work of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and are grateful for the suggestion that we two organizations – committed for so many years to educating the youth of the greater Los Angeles community – might find ways to work together for our shared goals: greater understanding, greater humanity, greater peace.”
In the next scene, the glasses- and sneaker-wearing Romeo (Shaun Taylor-Corbett) and his Muslim friends decide to attend the Capulets’ masque party for Purim, and it’s there that he meets the hosts’ 17-year-old daughter Juliet (Judy Durkin). The entertainment at the party is a rapper who retells the Purim story to a funky backbeat, and everyone, including the Arabs, sings along with it. It’s no coincidence that Geer has chosen to mark the Jewish Purim holiday in this way, for Purim, based on the biblical Book of Esther, is itself a story about religious bigotry and murder, in which neither side comes out particularly glowing with beneficence.
Capulet’s (Alan Blumenfeld) household is rounded out by his wife Geveret (Karen Reed) and the Nurse (Melora Marshall), plus various hangers on and suitors. On the Montague side there are Romeo’s parents Israel López Reyes and Celia Mandela (who wears the full hijab). Key characters in the story keep their original names – Mercutio (Rav Val Denegro) and Tybalt (Taylor Jackson Ross in a gender-bending role) – but instead of the Prince of Verona we get the Prime Minister. And Friar Laurence, hoping that the marriage he performs will end the family quarrel, becomes Mufti Zaman, who wears a keffiyeh and greets his friends “Salaam aleykhum.” Juliet appears at the Mufti’s house wearing a head covering out of respect for Muslim custom (although covering the hair is also a Jewish tradition). The numerous Christian allusions in the original play have been excised.
Most of Shakespeare’s language is preserved intact (Geer has tightened up the action somewhat and it’s played in two acts), but we also hear Arabic, Hebrew, and even a little Yiddish as the Nurse advises Juliet to marry Peretz (originally Paris), a Hasidic Jew with long sidelocks who is her father’s choice for a spouse. Generous doses of music also emphasize that we are living amidst a barely coexisting multicultural Middle Eastern world. The Capulet and the Montague homes are decked out respectively with Israeli and Palestinian flags.
The specific language of the play, which first appeared in the 1590s, actually contributes to our understanding of this particular setting. The King James Bible dates from just a few years later – 1611. What most English speakers know of those canonical texts that became “the Bible” derives from this version. Shakespeare himself was, alongside King James and his corps of translators, one of the great stabilizers, and innovators as well, of the English language, so the Romeo and Juliet story sounds forth with suitably appropriate Biblical cadences.
Romeo is, like Juliet, a teenager. At first he is smitten with Rebecca (Rosaline in the original), but upon seeing Juliet quickly transfers his exaggerated, overwrought emotions to her. Taylor-Corbett and Durkin each play their youthful roles so freshly, Romeo ever on the move with his hip-hop dances and acrobatic leaps. His famous love soliloquies come off as a kind of rap, as in “enraptured,” while Juliet swoons, pouts and flings herself about in adolescent abandon.
Ellen Geer has truly offered her public a revelatory interpretation with superb performances without exception. It’s too bad this is just a play: If only the final peace concluded between the “Capulets” and “Montagues” had held, the world might have been spared one of the most intractable dilemmas of all time.
Romeo and Juliet plays in repertory with four other plays this summer through October 2 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 15419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga CA 90290. For the full schedule and tickets contact the theatre at: www.theatricum.com or call (310) 455-3723.
Audience members are advised to dress casually (and warmly for evening performances), and bring cushions for bench seating. Picnickers are welcome before and after the show.
Photo: Shaun Taylor-Corbett and Judy Durkin, The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum | Ian Fanders