Susannah Martin Makes Shakespeare’s Teenage Tragedy Ours
by Jordan Freed
As 21st Century teenagers face clockwork killing sprees, the ghosts of Romeo and Juliet take on fresh meaning. In 2018, politicians failed to protect the Parkland High students—while Shakespeare shows the Montagues and Capulets sacrificing their children in a blood feud. Director Susannah Martin spotlights our cynical, bitter neglect in her enthusiastic and hauntingly youthful “Romeo and Juliet.”
We begin outside the Flax Building on stony 15th Street, in downtown Oakland, casually watching a street fight. The infamous insult: “Do you bite your thumb at me sir?” echoes down the block. R&J’s slowly growing tension grips us, outside the theater.
At Ubuntu Theater Project, Martin takes a fresh look at these “star-crossed” lovers. Her inventive staging and inspired casting give the production a downtown Oakland feel, while the old story remains poignant.
In an excellent choice, many of the performers are teenagers, capturing their needless tragedy. The first time we meet Romeo (dashing Chachi Delgado) and Juliet (buoyant Sarah Camacho), we are shocked by their youth. All at once, I am heartbroken, knowing the doom that awaits the bright young couple.
After the opening fight, we move into a small, barren warehouse, where a towering, blue industrial ladder becomes Juliet’s balcony. High ceilings and wide cement floors provide space for action-packed fights. Swords are replaced in brutal, close-quarter combat with knives, belts, and crowbars.
With very little stage dressing, the actors hold our attention with the Bard’s fiery words. The lively young cast brings the touching story alive. Provocative Mercutio (spirited Michael Curry) jabs and japes, making us laugh; while Benvolio (sterling Kevin Rebultan) desperately tries to keep the peace between the warring gangs The hot-headed Tybalt (animated Nathaniel Andalis) draws us in with his terrible temper, as he confronts the boss, Lord Capulet (Benoît Monin).
Delgado and Camacho glow as the young lovers. Delgado brings eager passion to Romeo, captivating us with his infectious naivete, and later, stunning us with heartfelt sorrow. The sunny Camacho imbues Juliet with a rare wit and spunk—you won’t find a damsel in distress here. In a beautiful moment of gender-reversal, Juliet tenderly holds Romeo in her arms, comforting him after his fateful duel with Tybalt. That scene could take place on any American city street, any day.
The older cast members also have their fun. Emilie Whelan entertains as the Nurse, playfully exaggerating her exhaustion, while impatient Juliet begs for news about Romeo. William Oliver III is a knockout as the sensible Friar Lawrence, bringing a soothing lilt to Shakespeare’s rhythm.
It turns out that we share resentment, greed, and selfishness with Shakespeare’s world. Where is the love, generosity, and hope expressed by the young lovers? With “Romeo and Juliet,” Ubuntu once again takes a familiar play, strip it to its core, and expose a powerful modern meaning.
Photos by Simone Finney
“Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare, directed by Susannah Martin, by Ubuntu Theater Project, at The FLAX Building, 1501 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, Oakland, through Sunday, June 9, 2019. Info: ubuntutheaterproject.com
Cast: Michael Aldrete, Nathaniel Andalis, Kieran Beccia, Sarah Camacho, Jamella Cross, Michael Curry, Chachi Delgado, Carla Gallardo, Champagne Hughes, Benoît Monin, William Oliver III, Kevin Rebultan, Margherita Ventura, and Emilie Whelan.
Banner photo: Champagne Hughes (The Prince).