Russian Mafia, Beer Revive 'Romeo and Juliet'

Photo: Romeo, Oh Romeo. Anachronism riddles Impact Theatre's 'Romeo and Juliet,' which reimagines Shakespeare's classic as a mob tale.
Chesire Isaacs/Courtesy
Romeo, Oh Romeo. Anachronism riddles Impact Theatre's 'Romeo and Juliet,' which reimagines Shakespeare's classic as a mob tale.

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Everyone knows the story: In fair Verona, two feuding families, a forbidden love, tragedy, despair, the horror, the horror, etc. But deep within the pepperoni nether-regions of La Val's Pizza, Impact Theatre is busy reminding us how much there is to laugh about in "Romeo and Juliet," in a highly creative production driven by a few spot-on performances.

Director Melissa Hillman has decided to spice this classic with a grungy Russian mafia theme. With the opening lines in Russian, the audience is introduced to a world of tattoos, guns and other paraphernalia of badassery, led by what appear to be the two scariest-looking men in the Bay Area as Lords Montague (David Toda) and Capulet (Jon Nagel).

Luisa Frasconi's Juliet is a sweet and delicate little thing, except when she's erupting in a temper tantrum. Frasconi's performance stretches from her wide eyes to the very tips of her toes. One could watch the entire show from the perspective of her feet, clad in white tights and black flats, skittering to and fro in anticipation of her Romeo.

Meanwhile Michael McDonald proves to us all that Romeo is, truly, nothing more than a big dumb dweeb. With his dweeb-y costume and dweeb-y hair and dweebier musings on love and life, it's hard not to imagine Romeo and Juliet as the two most annoying kids in your high school class. But as much as you hated them, it's sort of cute when they get together.

Sparingly used, the addition of a few sassy one-liners adds to the show's accessibility. I never thought I would appreciate a "That's what she said" tucked slyly into the work of Shakespeare. (Though it could be this particular company's encouragement of the audience's beer consumption that makes such would-be blasphemy acceptable.)

When the two lovers are left alone to their romantic devices, or when the youth of Verona are out in the streets displaying some top-notch drunk acting, it's clear that this cast's greatest strength is with comedy. Unfortunately, the show seems to lose some steam once things start going wrong.

The death of Mercutio is tragic enough in this case, as it marks the end of a firecracker performance by Marilet Martinez. But in this as well as other death scenes, there is often more stillness and staring than any other kind of reaction. A notable exception to this is the Nurse, played by Bernadette Quattrone, who in a natural performance is the only adult outwardly comfortable with her own heartbreak. Lady Capulet (Ara Glenn-Johanson) remains a stone-cold bitch - not to mention a stone-cold fox.

By the end of the show, the mobster schtick runs a little thin. "Oh yeah" - you are reminded from time to time, when someone stops speaking English - "Russians." Maybe this is why Lord and Lady Capulet remain somewhat standoffish even with the death of their daughter - it fits their cold-hard mobster characters.

Perhaps to avoid breaking with this theme, Hillman decided to cut the play short, before much of the grieving (and explaining) takes place in the script. And so in this version, we do not get to see that at least the Capulets and Montagues have decided to change their violent ways and settle the feud that caused so much bloodshed.

This may be the point of this production, which places so much emphasis on violence. Giving the audience many laughs but not a lot of hope, this "Romeo and Juliet" ends up both funnier and more pessimistic than most.


Hannah Jewell is the lead theater critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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