Get ready to rumble. Buy lots of extra Kleenex. Romeo and Juliet, those star-crossed lovers from Verona, Italy, are getting ready to kill themselves again, and this time, they're making it a double date with two crazy kids from New York City. As the grand finale of the 2007–2008 Sonoma State University theater arts program, two of the greatest and saddest love stories ever put onstage—Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Laurents, Bernstein and Sondheim's West Side Story—will play back to back in rotating repertory, a veritable dead-teenager marathon. Romeo and Juliet, directed by Paul Draper, opened last week, and West Side Story, under the direction of Amanda McTigue with musical direction by Lynne Morrow, starts this week, after which both plays will alternate back and forth, sometimes on the same day, through May 11.
"These are students who are coming to this material fresh," says Draper, standing in the lobby of the Evert B. Person Theatre, where he is joined by his Romeo and Juliet (Rob Ratchford and Greta Marh) along with McTigue and West Side Story's Tony and Maria (Arturo Spell and Christa Durand). "They have their own things to say about the world they live in. This experience gives them the opportunity to relate this great material to what they are experiencing, to allow them to think, 'What do I feel now?' rather than 'What would they think then?' In so doing, they are reclaiming this material and making it powerfully strong, fresh and significant. They are making these plays their own."
"It's true," says Marh. "I mean, who doesn't know Romeo and Juliet? We do make it fresh by making it our own. What I've been focusing on is making it my Juliet. It won't be like anyone else's Juliet, which takes a lot of pressure off me, while also putting a lot of pressure on."
According to McTigue, that same principle is at work on West Side Story. This version, for example, features a racially mixed cast that circumvents the all-white Jets and all–Puerto Rican Sharks casting that most audiences expect. In these gangs, racial identity is not so black and white—or brown and white.
"This production," McTigue says, "highlights the play's underlying issues of identity and race, examines issues of who's who, asks the questions about what a gang means and demands to know what all this hatred is based on. The makeup of our cast alone breaks that open in a new way and forces us to examine those questions."
"In West Side," says Christa Durand, "we've been working a lot at stripping away the dated stuff, particularly the way the language is performed. If we keep the original language, it sounds kind of 1950s-ish, so we've been working on contemporizing our body language, throwing in a few ad libs here and there. But really feeling the language as if it were today, not falling back on characterizations from the 1950s."
The action in West Side Story is updated as well, says Durand, with the fight scenes reconceived to look less like Jerome Robbins' modern dances, as in most versions, and more like actual fighting. "Whenever I watch the opening scene, the opening fight between the gangs," she says, "I always tear up because it's so real, so filled with hatred and ridiculousness between these two gangs. I think we've been focusing on digging down to the real drama, to the real emotions, and not just putting on some cute high school show."
"In Romeo and Juliet," says Ratchford, "the fighting is also pretty real, with bats and sticks and swords and all kinds of weapons. When the fights come, it looks pretty scary, because violence is scary."
"Yeah, this play is about conflict and hate, but it's also about love," says Spell. "I'd never seen West Side Story until I was cast as Tony, and then when I found out that I die, I was like, 'Man, that sucks.' But when I put myself into this character, I think about what would happen between me and Maria if I didn't die, even with all of this anger and hatred and stuff going on. Maybe if Chino didn't get me at the end, maybe if Maria and I somehow survived and ran off to the desert, just me and her, we would have made it.
"I wonder if, in the real world, that would have been possible, a multiracial couple, just running away and leaving all this stuff behind. To me, I have to say, 'Yes. Yes, they would make it.' Because even in a world where interracial relationships are not approved of everywhere, especially back in the 1950s when this was written, even with all of that, I believe love conquers all, and hope springs eternal."
"There is one scene in Romeo and Juliet that is so pure," Draper says, "so absent of any kind of cynicism or negativity, and that's the famous balcony scene. Every time I watch it I think, 'How is it possible to be any place except wanting love?' And when that love gets pulled apart, what Shakespeare is doing—and what hopefully we will be doing—is pulling the audience apart a little too."
"There's one part in the show," Marh says, "where Romeo has to go off to Mantua, and I always think, 'Why am I not going to Mantua?' I always want to climb down the balcony and go after him. Why can't we just run away together?"
"It's a fantastic moment as an actor," Ratchford says, "because everyone knows we'll never see each other alive again, but we don't know that. I don't know that. At that moment, I, as Romeo, as we're parting, I have to believe that I am going to see this person again, that this is my wife and I'm coming back to get her. Rob says that if Tony didn't die, he and Maria would find a way to stay together, no matter how hard it would have been, and I feel the same way about Romeo and Juliet. Juliet is his equal.
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"He tells Friar Lawrence, 'The one I love now doth grace for grace and love for love allow.' In other words, he's saying, 'I've found the one I've been looking for. Juliet is the one.' If they hadn't ended up killing themselves, you know they'd have found a way to make it all work."
'Romeo and Juliet' plays April 18, 26 and May 2 and 10 at 8pm; April 19 and May 3 at 2pm; April 27 at 5pm; April 29 and May 7–8 at 7:30pm. 'West Side Story' plays April 16–17 and 30, May 1 and 6 at 7:30pm; April 19 and 25, May 3 and 9 at 8pm; April 20 and May 4 at 5pm; April 26 and May 10 at 2pm; The two plays are a double feature April 19 and 26 and May 3. $8–$15. Evert B. Person Theatre, SSU, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. 707.664.2353.