Love in the time of occupation
By Julie Cortez, El Hispanic News
Ashland, OR — They may be living under the heel of their newly-arrived U.S. occupiers in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, but the wealthy Montagues and Capulets are still clinging to their “ancient grudge” and carrying on a war of their own in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
Hidalgos, haciendas, vaqueros — this “Romeo and Juliet” is set in the society not of Italianos but of Californios, the Spanish-speaking Mexicans who settled Alta California before the United States went all Manifest Destiny on the region.
In “fair Verona” — a mid-19th Century town in Alta California — Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet fall head-over-spurs in love, despite Don Capulet’s plans to assure his family’s continued prominence in the new power structure by wedding Juliet to Captain Paris, nephew of the U.S. commander of Verona, General Prince.
It may not be set in the period William Shakespeare originally intended, but this “Romeo and Juliet” is most certainly a period piece — and a bit of a history lesson.
“I was really delighted that it was not just period, but a period that I think is quite unfamiliar to people,” says Daniel José Molina, who, just a year out of college, landed the role of Romeo in his first season with OSF.
Alejandra Escalante, Juliet to Molina’s Romeo, adds: “It’s almost like unearthing some mystical time that nobody really knows much about.” In her second season with OSF, Escalante is similarly grateful for the glimpse of a largely-ignored chapter of history.
“I remember in high school literally having like a paragraph on the Mexican-American War,” she says. “And my father was Mexican, so that’s the information that I got, which is obviously one very specific point of view. He was very much like, ‘¡La Raza!’”
Escalante is also half Argentinean and Molina was born in the Dominican Republic, so they have welcomed the opportunity to connect with their characters more deeply by slipping in some Spanish phrases and touches of Hispanic culture.
“It resonates, at least for us, which I think lets us show it to the audience more,” Escalante says. “It’s this weird, very strong point of pride within us to be able to do these roles.”
Predictably, their excitement about the cultural changes is not universally felt. Escalante has heard some grumbling about “another Latino Shakespeare.” (Last season OSF put a Latino spin on “Measure for Measure.”)
“It doesn’t shove the culture and the setting down your throat,” Molina says. “All the elements of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ are still able to happen in this setting. We still get the sword fights. We still get the excruciating summer heat.”
Youngsters in love
We also get a pair of actors striving to authentically portray a pair of young, awkward, love-struck kids. Molina recalls seeing productions in which it seemed the lead characters were fully aware theirs is “the greatest love story.”
“It’s like immediately they know they’re in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and that’s so not what excited me about the play,” he says. “What excited me … was the messiness and the impetuosity and the ‘I don’t have the words to say it’ and all those insecurities that happen at such an awkward age.”
Juliet is 13 and Romeo probably a little older, and at 24 and 23, respectively, Escalante and Molina haven’t put enough time between them and their adolescence yet to forget what it was like to be ruled by hormone swings and great big feelings.
“I think I was probably pretty annoying at 13,” says Escalante, who portrays Juliet as a feisty, somewhat loud-mouthed girl, brimming with confidence but also naïve and unpolished. “I know that I always thought that I was right, for sure. But, I think in the same way that Juliet at very first starts out, I really did want to make my parents happy. … There was nothing about me that wanted to ruffle my parents’ feathers.”
Then, something flipped the dreaded teen switch. For Juliet, Escalante suggests, it was falling in love.
“All of a sudden you feel like, ‘Now it’s time to rebel!’” she says. “There’s definitely a lot of me in that. There’s no age when you are more extreme. In one second you are sobbing on the ground … [saying] ‘I just might as well die!’ And then the next moment you’re just jumping for joy. It’s like being bipolar.”
For Molina, playing a far-from-smooth, self-deprecating, self-pitying Romeo meant ignoring “everything that I had learned in school about “‘real Shakespeare.’ You plant! And you speak!” he says in a deep, authoritative voice, before breaking into a laugh. “No, no, I was not confident at all at 16, 17.”
Recalling that lack of confidence has proven helpful when tackling the play’s iconic — Molina calls it “cliché” — balcony scene.
“It’s almost bigger than the play,” he says, adding that luckily he and Escalante were “able to do it like it is happening for the first time. That scene, more than any scene in the play, it’s not clean. There are all these emotions flying. He’s gonna go away, but she calls him back, and she doesn’t remember what she was going to say to him and he doesn’t quite know how to tell her how much he loves her. It’s not secure; it’s very insecure. It’s very flighty and crazy. But that’s what love at that age is.”
Yet a love story that has endured and resonated across centuries has to have depth, even when it centers on a couple of inexperienced teenagers.
Escalante credits director Laird Williamson for encouraging them to take a more “neutral” approach to the characters early in the rehearsal process — “not putting so much of ourselves onto it,” she recalls, “and kind of making it more about, ‘Create the love. Make the love as powerful, as real, as intense as possible.’”
Once the characters were grounded and believable, he allowed them to tap into their inner crazy kids.
“If you go too far in either direction,” Escalante says, “you kind of have a disaster.”
And a disaster just isn’t the same as a tragedy.
“Romeo and Juliet” closes Nov. 4. For tickets and information, visit www.osfashland.org/.
Este artículo también está disponible en / This post is also available in: Spanish
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