Many fine companies have done justice to Shakespeare’s beloved “Romeo and Juliet” over the past decades, and this reviewer has been privileged to enjoy most of them. Lauren Spencer, the Juliet now on stage in Pleasanton, is the most perfect embodiment of the Bard’s girl-woman in memory! I heartily urge readers to experience her luminous performance over the next two weeks, before the production moves on to other venues.
The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, now in its 33rd glorious year, is bringing free performances of “Romeo and Juliet” to Pleasanton’s Amador Park for its 16th annual visit, and the show is a winner on all counts. Major roles are filled by excellent actors (many of them Actors’ Equity players); diction is clear and miraculously understandable. What too often passes for Shakespearean acting is merely mouthing the lines without comprehension, but these actors express themselves intelligibly and inhabit their characters to the life.
Gwen Loeb, so memorable as Mrs. Bennett in Livermore Shakes’ “Pride and Prejudice," out- does herself as Juliet’s nurse, one of Shakespeare’s plummiest parts. Good-natured and garrulous, she rattles on like a Renaissance Mrs. B., reminiscing about the past and making happy marriage plans for her young charge, with amusingly earthy innuendoes and suggestive body language. The enthusiastic rush of her memories, her sly teasing of an Impatient Juliet, and the deliciously prolonged process of trying to awaken the girl on her wedding morning are all skillful aspects of a consummate performance and a joy to watch.
Another highlight of the show is David E. Moore’s Mercutio, a boisterous, boastful, wise-cracking reveler whose quirky monologue on Queen Mab, often rendered as rapid gibberish, is here clearly expressed both verbally and physically. In fact, the physicality of Moore’s acting makes him the larger-than-life character meant as a foil to Romeo and Benvolio, his boon companions. His lively personality was clearly appreciated and applauded by the opening night audience and by this reviewer.
An unusual surprise was the exceptional performance by Regina Morones as Benvoglio,speaking truth to Romeo in plain honest terms,while joining in the boyish joshing of the friendly trio. Often a neglected and badly-cut part, this Benvoglio is rounded out as a well-meaning, loyal, and supportive cousin of the hero, and one who appreciates the importance of keeping the peace, unlike the hot-headed Mercutio.
Carl Holvick as Romeo gave a deeply-nuanced performance, showing the several stages of his dramatic development. As the love-struck boy, he was an amusing example of “puppy love," rhapsodizing sophomorically and despairing with exaggerated pathos over his first “crush." His apostrophes upon meeting Juliet showed a more serious and intense depth of emotion, despite the affected tone of their initial conversation, and the balcony scene was truly heartfelt and moving.
Both Holvick and Lauren Spencer are unique in their abilities to be spontaneously young on stage. It’s no mean feat to gush with the wide-eyed emotion of first love and make it believable to hundreds of strangers who have “been there, done that." Spencer, bursting with a joy that cannot be confined to the balcony’s limited dimensions, and Romeo flinging his loving words into the night, created magic many famous performers have failed to evoke. This reviewer even stopped taking notes.
As Romeo’s troubles multiplied, Holvick displayed a series of visceral reactions: despair, anger, and complete emotional collapse, emerging into strong-minded and determined maturity. Still caring enough to notice the apothecary’s abject poverty, and to offer him words of comfort, he is also unwilling to harm Paris until forced to do so. His is a truly noble soul, and Holvick portrayed his desperate struggles against his family’s fatal feud with sincerity and strength.
Spencer’s performance was simply incandescent, leaving even members of the cast in tears after rehearsals. Anyone who fails to attend a performance will miss a truly memorable portrayal. She is surrounded by other talented players: Sean Garahan as a devoted Count Paris, Mohammed Shahata as a strong-voiced and authoritative Prince Escalus, Carla Pantoja (last season’s wonderful Shrew) as the pugnacious Tybalt, and Michael Asberry as the volatile Lord Capulet
Of special note was Phil Lowery as Friar Laurence, a role often stereotyped as a well-meaning but bumbling clerical Polonius. With dialogue not always included in stage productions, the character’s cautious but strong-minded lines bring out a far-sighted man with deep psychological insights, using his humanity, wisdom, and a compassionate kind of early Tough Love to comfort the characters in their griefs. Lowery’s performance evokes strong sympathy for his feelings of guilt and remorse in the final scene.
With a simple but effective uniset, a few functional furnishings, a helpful color-guide to the warring families, and some well-chosen excerpts of period music, as well as some authentic-looking dance sequences, this small company has mounted a wonderful show. Featuring professional –caliber performers fully invested in their roles and trained to speak intelligible Elizabethan English for modern ears, this troupe should be charging theater-ticket prices. Instead they offer these shows free to the public, hoping to share Shakespeare with the entire community.
One of the largest free Shakespeare companies in the nation, and a major provider of art education throughout the Bay Area and the state, they deserve to be supported by everyone who believes that art is important in our everyday lives. KUDOS TO Executive Director Toby Leavitt and Artistic Director Rebecca J. Ennals for providing our valley with this wonderful production, as well as the Shakespeare Camps enjoyed by so many local students, and for the touring presentations in our schools, libraries, and community centers.
“Romeo and Juliet” will be presented at 7:30 PM for four more performances: Thursday, July 2, Saturday, July 11, and Sundays July 5 and 12 at Pleasanton’s Amador Valley Community Park, Black Avenue behind the swimming pool. Bring blankets or low beach chairs for close-up seating, or higher-backed chairs for rows farther from the stage. Warm wraps are recommended for the evening chill. The performance runs 2 ½ hours, with one fifteen-minute intermission, when refreshments are sold.
Early arrivals are treated to a short Green Show, “A Pre-Party in Fair Verona," starting at 7 PM. After the curtain, please donate generously to the cast’s “begging baskets” and help keep free Shakespeare alive in our community for the future.