Many of us are familiar with the line spoken by Romeo — “What light from yonder window breaks.” The light in this case comes not from windows but from the sun setting upon the outdoor amphitheater nestled in a rustic dell with a wide, hardwood stage carved into the hillside, stone steps, large trees, white-lighted earthen paths surrounding the stage, and stacks of wooden bleachers set into the hillside, all of which maintains an intimate sanctuary.
This “Romeo and Juliet” is an urban dress version and, as usual with such productions, there is a tension between script, ancient social hierarchies, and the thematic intentions of the director. Set in East Jerusalem, two old neighborhoods — one Jewish and one Palestinian — exist side-by-side. Our knowledge of the insolvable differences of the Middle East puts a lot of pressure on a story about two feuding families. It also doubly emphasizes what an outrageous teenage rebel Juliet is, from the 1590s to the present day.
This night Juliet is played by Judy Durkin. The Artist Bios included in the season’s program noted that Durkin is in her sixth season with the Theatricum company. She played Jean Fordham in August: Osage County last season.
Durkin delivered a strong performance, especially in the moving Act 3 scene where she confronts her parents and refuses to marry Peretz (Gray Schierholt) even though her father threatens to cast her out on the street if she is not obedient. She is already secretly married to Romeo, the killer of her kinswoman Tybalt.
Romeo is played by Shaun Taylor-Corbett. His physical presence and vocal style gives the impression of the rapt young seducer who overwhelms with affection.
He was rather nerdish in his big black spectacles at the beginning of the play. He loses the glasses later in the play and becomes more believable as his character. He is physically skilled as he rolls slapstick-like down a small hill, climbs bridges transporting him closer to Juliet, and gambols on roofs.
The production uses the whole theater — cast members ascending and descending the stairs through the audience seating, paths surrounding and the behind the stage utilized as streets and other thoroughfares.
Besides the Palestinian and Israeli flags denoting its East Jerusalem location, there are other cues guiding observers to this modern-day rendition of a very old love story.
Tybalt (Taylor Jackson Ross) is a woman dressed in military attire, and has the fortitude of any soldier in a war zone. Hip hop is energetically infused with belly dancing at the Capulet’s party. Half of the soldiers on the Israeli soil are women. Many of the character names have been changed to reflect the ethnicity of the setting. For example, Paris is now Peretz; Montague is now Aasayidah Montague.
This version of “Romeo and Juliet,” as with all versions, illustrates how “young people negotiate through what is not created by them,” according to Director Ellen Greer’s notes. Be that as it may, the finale — as Romeo and Juliet lay dead and the truth is revealed — the traditional handshake between Montague and Capulet becomes a deeply moving moment of reconciliation between Palestinian and Jew.
“Romeo and Juliet” plays through Oct. 2, with both matinees and evening performances. The Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., in Topanga. For more information, call (310) 455-2322.