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Tragic tale of love and loss, given fresh life

Just when you think you've seen every possible iteration of "Romeo and Juliet," along comes a fresh take.

In the production that kicked off the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2012 season Friday night in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, directed by Laird Williamson, the Capulets and Montagues love and brawl in a sun-drenched Verona plunked down in Alta California in the 1840s twilight of the Spanish colonial system.

Romeo (Daniel José Molina) and Juliet (Alejandra Escalante) are the children of rich hidalgos whose world (dramatic irony alert) is doomed. The audience's background awareness of what's coming at Sutter's Mill looms over everything, ratcheting up the sense of rushing time that dominates the unfolding play of sex and death and their agents.

The actors speak in Spanish accents (which vary widely), and Spanish phrases slip out here and there between the iambic pentameter and blank verse. A hora! Madre mio! There is the perennial question of why we hear accents as characters speak in what is certainly their native tongue.

Actors are dressed in impressions of Spanish/Mexican-themed clothing including chaquetas or jackets, vaquero pants with buttons, boots, flowing gowns. When Romeo buys the poison it's not from a European apothecary but an Ohlone medicine woman.

A great curve of an adobe wall dominates Michael Ganio's set, its arc defining the outer edges of an ellipse with a rounded dais at its middle, and a large door stage right suggests a cloistered Spanish courtyard, or maybe an enclosed orchard, a traditional symbol of virginity and an apt home for the almost-14 Juliet.

The wall is fronted by what looks like wood lath on bare studs, but bathed in ever-changing light, the sweeping structure becomes the mean streets of Verona, Juliet's balcony, Friar Laurence's cell, the crypt. The heavens stretch high above the star-crossed tale in moody projections on a vast screen upstage.

All the eye candy would be so what? if Williamson's Rancho Verona came across as one of those conceits somebody has grafted onto Shakespeare for no apparent purpose — but these Californios, as the landed Spanish gentry called themselves, slide into Shakespeare's world as naturally as a doublet or a rapier.

Mexico sold the Spanish missions and scattered their American Indian converts in 1836, ending the Mission period and birthing the short-lived Rancho era, in which conflicts between white and Indian and church and state began to be upstaged by a new conflict with the coming of Anglo-Americans from the East. Thus the Prince has become Capt. Prince of the U.S. Army, and Count Paris, Juliet's most unsuitable suitor, is Capt. Paris.

This further alienates Prince and Co. from the pulse of rancho life. Prince's main job is to issue an edict after the play's opening brawl that further street violence will be punishable by death. Of course the minute an authority issues a sweeping prohibition at the top of a Shakespeare play, the forbidden action is guaranteed (think of the King in "Love's Labor's Lost," the Duke in "The Comedy of Errors").

Like the Vietnamese allies of America in Saigon in the 1970s or French collaborators in the Paris of 1943, Don Capulet, Don Montague and their minions are living on borrowed time and somebody else's dime. And time is of the essence in "Romeo and Juliet," especially after the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt as events time warp to doom.

Molina and Escalante embody the breathless impetuosity of youth, now and then breaking out of the rhythms of their sublime blank verse to yell and even jump up and down. Far from being a breakdown of acting chops, the hyper hijinks communicate to the audience the unbearable frenzy of teenage lovers fighting a corrupt world that's closing in at a lightning tempo.

But as the Friar reminds us, "These violent delights have violent ends."

Even Juliet has her premonitions.

"My grave is like to be my wedding bed," she says.

It's said that by the time an actor can play Juliet she's too old, and characters' ages in the play have often been an issue. This time Don Capulet, a character who in the script is so aged that when he goes for his weapon he becomes the subject of double entendres about the presumed infirmity of his sword, is played by Elijah Alexander, an actor in the prime of life, and his wife by the lovely Vilma Silva. It's a bit jarring, but hey, look at Juliet's age.

Jason Rojas is an amiable Mercutio, and Fajer Al-Kaisi's Tybalt is menacing as one of Shakespeare's terse, stone killers in the mold of Hotspur, Hector, Coriolanus. Isabell Monk O'Connor as the Nurse quite seduces the audience with her earthy humor, so that her ultimate betrayal of Juliet is all the more shocking.

Escalante, an Actors' Equity professional theater intern, acquits herself nicely, although her Juliet does not overshadow Romeo, as Juliets sometimes do. This leaves Molina plenty of room to shine as he burns with love, and he does.

The conflict of the generations is one of Shakespeare's primary obsessions, and Escalante and Molina seem to grow in stature before our eyes as the adult world fails them utterly, including finally poor, inept Friar Laurence (Tony De Bruno), and their range of options shrinks to nothing.

Their love has lifted them out of a corrupt world, and nobody has learned anything. Don Capulet and Don Montague vow to create graven images of gold, as if that clears accounts. But the business of tragedy is not to teach a moral but to move us, and Williamson and company deliver.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Romeo (Daniel José Molina) and Juliet (Alejandra Escalante) prepare to take their wedding vows in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of “Romeo and Juliet.”