Cal Shakes’ bilingual ‘Romeo y Juliet’ is set in the Alta California of 1845

In the theater’s world premiere adaptation of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the star-crossed lovers are portrayed as two daughters of the long-feuding Capulet and Montague families.

Juan Amador and Sarita Ocón as Romeo in Cal Shakes’ Romeo y Juliet. Credit: Kevin Berne

Part of the mission of the California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes) is to present expansive and innovative renditions of the Bard of Avon’s works so that everyone can enjoy and cherish the time-honored tales. And with Romeo y Juliet, adapted by KJ Sanchez and Karen Zacarías and written by Zacarías, Cal Shakes has outdone itself.

Romeo y Juliet, Cal Shakes, through June 19

Romeo y Juliet re-sets the tragic story in the town of Verona, in Alta California, as California was known during Spanish Colonial and Mexican rule, before California’s annexation to the U.S. The star-crossed lovers, Juliet (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera, Quixote Nuevo) and Romeo (Sarita Ocón), are portrayed as two daughters of the long-feuding Capulet and Montague families, the cause of which is never disclosed, if remembered at all. With this literal and figurative backdrop, the bilingual dialogue seems absolutely natural.

One sentence may begin in English and end in Spanish. For the English speakers, many of the famous Shakespearian lines are acted in English. And as a truly bilingual production, there is plenty of Spanish spoken. For non-Spanish speakers, it was often easy to discern the meaning from the context of the Spanish. For example, when Juliet’s father, Capulet (Orlando Arriaga) angrily insists (in Spanish) that she marry Paris, the husband that Capulet chose for her, his fury is evident in any language. Perhaps because of the bilingualism or perhaps simply as a matter of style, there is a bit of embroidery in some of the actors’ Spanish recitations.

The pandemic canceled the show’s world premiere plans, initially scheduled for September 2020. Almost two years later, as the production was poised to open, another snag arose. Last week, a replacement had to be located for the actor scheduled to play Juliet. “There were issues in the rehearsal room that we couldn’t resolve,” Sarah Williams, Cal Shakes’ Managing Director, told Berkeleyside Monday. The substitution was not pandemic-related, Williams said.

Happily, Gianna DiGregorio Rivera, who had been cast to act in the 2020 production of Romeo y Juliet, was available. Within a few days of the re-scheduled opening night, she flew out from New York and began preparing for the part. The circumstances of the new Juliet were explained to the audience before the opening night production. We were told she would carry a script and might need to be cued for a line. But the script was like the baby blanket she no longer needed. Gianna DiGregorio Rivera was excellent. Any hint of tentativeness might well have been her portrayal of 14-year-old Juliet.

Gianna DiGregorio Rivera. Credit: Jay Yamada

Conversely, popular Bay Area performer Sarita Ocón played a bold and brash Romeo who pranced, ran, and skipped across the stage. But yet, she showed tenderness in the right moments. All the actors contributed to the overall success of the evening. Wilma Bonet as the Nurse, and Orlando Arriaga as Friar Lawrence and Capulet, were particularly engaging and entertaining.

Director KJ Sanchez kept the pace of the drama moving quickly, with some judicious cuts to the text, to keep the production at about 2 hours and 25 minutes (plus one intermission). The poignant ending of the centuries-old saga still tugs at one’s heartstrings — in any language.

Romeo y Juliet runs through June 19, 2022. Cal Shakes advises the audience to dress warmly in layers since the temperature may dip down during evening performances. There is a complimentary shuttle from Orinda BART. Single tickets range from $30-$70 (subject to change). Evenings at 7:30 p.m., Sunday matinees at 4 p.m., select Saturdays at 2 p.m. Proof of vaccination (or a recent negative test) is required for admittance. For information, extended dates, and tickets, visit the CalShakes website or call 510-548-9666.

Brady Morales-Woolery and Hugo Carbajal in Romeo y Juliet. Credit: Kevin Berne
Longtime East Bay resident Emily S. Mendel has been Berkeleyside’s freelance theater and art critic since 2012.