What do Stephen Sondheim, Franco Zeffirelli, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Prokofiev and Charles Gounod have in common? They have all created popular works in their own time based on William Shakespeare’s end-of-the 16th century play, “Romeo and Juliet.”
In Shakespeare’s own time, however, the prolific Spanish playwright Lope de Vega created his own version of the romance.
Titled “The Capulets and Montagues,” it was based on the same source material Shakespeare used (thought to be a 14th century poem by Arthur Brooke), but was not influenced by Shakespeare’s interpretation at all. In fact, Lope’s version was a broad comedy, a farce, with a happy ending.
Virtually unknown and rarely performed, even in Spain, Lope’s verse play has now been translated into a dazzling new production by Shakespearean scholar and maven of the Golden Age of Spain, Dakin Matthews. Matthews, a vastly successful and ubiquitous actor and director, is the “dak” of the Andak Stage Company. (The other half is his wife, director Anne McNaughton.) They have mounted this world premiere in their 35-seat theater, and their 11 performers, each gorgeously attired, make their small stage seem as large as the city of Verona.
It’s a delightful play, and the “verse” translation is loose, spoken in the vernacular, and with the rhyme in couplets and then three lines away. The anticipation of the upcoming rhyme is part of the fun. Romeo, explaining to his friend Benvolio the relative blessings of the Montagues and Capulets:
“To one house and
The other, God opened his hand,
And two remarkable gifts did He give.
To us, the Montagues, He gave
The most courageous men, whose names
Echo with excellence, whose fames
Live on in tales, beyond the grave.
The Capulets received from Him
The finest, fairest ladies, whose
Beauty Nature itself did use
As models for the Seraphim.
If only we could join the two
By marriage — if this rivalry
And violence and hostility
Would disappear, I’m telling you
The Veronese would end up being
The envy of all Italy.”
As Matthews explains, “We seek to retain as much of the original as we can … We prefer, when introducing a classical piece to our audiences, not to impose too much upon the play and to give it a chance to prove its own stageworthiness without too much tinkering.”
In this, Matthews has the perfect partner, his director/wife McNaughton. She has brought his translation to vibrant life with the help of a brilliant cast: most especially with Benny Wills as a handsome, posturing Romeo, and Nicol Zanzarella-Giacalone as the demure Juliet. Also notable are Bruce Green as Marin, Romeo’s comic servant, Brett Colbeth as Romeo’s friend Benvolio, and John Apicella and John Achorn as the heads of the two rival families. Apicella actually appears onstage in five different roles (and costumes), while Achorn appears twice and Colbeth appears three times. It is to their credit that, even though you recognize them each time they appear (after all, how much can a man with a bushy white moustache disguise himself?) they are clear and convincing — and funny — in their multiple roles.
While the producers claim to be constrained by limitations of space and budget, it is evident that they have spared no expense in the lavish costumes designed and prepared by Dean Cameron. They are wonderful. And the sparse set designed by Michael Cook — mostly arched doorways and windows — provides for maximum movement without diminishing the ambience of a large Renaissance city. There’s even room for a sword fight.
The audience members may assume that they are familiar with the Romeo and Juliet story, and all the twists and turns of the well-known Shakespearean play are present in this version. But, as Matthews says, this is “Romeo and Juliet as you’ve never seen them before.” Spoiler alert: they don’t die. And the happy ending is a satisfying conclusion to a drama that is more comedy than tragedy. And for those theatergoers who are not big fans of farce, this is the production that will change your mind.
“The Capulets and the Montagues” will continue at the Andak Stage Company’s New Place Studio Theatre, 10950 Peach Grove St., in North Hollywood, Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Feb. 27. Call (866) 811-4111 for tickets.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.