Director Israel Hicks zeroes in on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet with fervor and style in his new telling of the classic tale at the Denver Center Theatre Company. He has the temerity to set the greatest of Shakespeare's cautionary tales in old California (instead of old Verona), with Spanish dons and Yankee merchant men comprising the warring factions. And the transplant takes. While it's true that Hicks intermittently translates the Bard's Elizabethan poetry into pedestrian modern English, the lively, inventive performances, lavish details and seamless conception of the production make up for the director's occasionally shameless license.

Of course, the play should have been retitled Romeo and Julieta. The Capulets are now the Capuletos, landed Spanish gentry like those whose huge land grants from the Spanish crown covered so much of California in the 1820s before the Yankees rushed in. The gracious set by Bill Curley captures the feeling as well as the look of early California rancho architecture. Andrew Yelusich's excellent costumes are a tad exaggerated in one or two cases (Teobaldo, more commonly known as Tybalt, is dressed in absurd red), but they add texture and brilliant color to the sun-bleached desert landscape. And thanks to Hicks's unerring eye for riveting detail, the staging and choreography are picture-perfect.

Hicks draws on Don Darnutzer's stunning lighting to build the pensive, fateful mood of the play, then keeps his actors moving in surprising and ingenious ways. The Capuleto ball where Romeo first spies the delicious young Julieta features charming, stylized Spanish dancing. While the two young lovers meet at the front of the stage, the dancers move to the back, their silhouettes suggestive of gaiety and ancient custom.

Hicks also invests the famous balcony scene with new charm. Julieta, played with exuberance and innocence by Clea Rivera, is thirteen going on fourteen, and she rushes around like a kitten--playful and ferociously determined. Romeo, meanwhile, hangs upside down from her balcony, rolls on the ground in ecstasy and runs, leaps and hides like a schoolboy. Though actor David Adkins is a trifle mature for such capers, he credibly projects the brash boyishness of new love. Rivera and Adkins are delightful together, burning for each other with more love than lust, more desperate need than animal anticipation.

Jacqueline Antaramian and John Hutton are paired as the Capuleto parents. They make an easy intimacy together and a natural family; when Hutton as Don Capuleto rails at Juliet, his anger is real enough, but beneath it he retains a shred of love for the child. Antaramian is more tender to Julieta as Dona Capuleto than is usual in the role, and it's a wonderful change. Hicks's careful orchestration of emotion in these family scenes gives us a glimpse of "la familia," Mediterranean style.

Kathleen M. Brady makes the Nurse more broadly comic than usual and deliciously profane--she's all heart and bosom with no conscience. And Jamie Horton's Friar Lawrence isn't the bungling, lovable fool he normally is, either. In Hicks's production, the Friar becomes a sober, wise thinker whose tragedy is that he can't preclude the lovers' fate--to be pushed into oblivion by their parents' mutual hate.

Making that family feud a matter of Spanish/Yankee culture clash does change the meaning of this moral story somewhat by suggesting it may have been sparked by differences wider than personal hatred. In the original story, the Capulets and the Montagues were neighbors--warring clans of the same culture and city who were quite capable of understanding each other yet still refused to bend pride, resentment and recalcitrance in the interest of peace.

Hicks, however, gives the play a sociopolitical spin by making the families' hatred a cultural issue. According to the program notes, he seems to want to blame the Yankee Montagues for all the trouble. But Shakespeare thwarts him here, because as Prince Escalo, the Spanish governor of California, says at the end of the play, all are guilty and all are punished. In Shakespeare's vision, the equally responsible Capulets and Montagues forfeit their children and therefore their future because they have broken the laws of God. And any political tinkering on Hicks's part aside, his production does succeed in translating the message of the original play into contemporary terms: We had better learn to be good neighbors, or our children will pay the consequences.


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