Among the many ideas and dynamics expressed in William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the bravery of the main characters struck a chord with Karen Zacarías.
“Brave” is a word she uses loosely when the Mexican-born playwright talks about adapting arguably the most popular love story in history. She and director KJ Sanchez knew that if they were to tell ancient history the way their hearts intended, a courageous commitment to uncompromising bilingualism was required.
After the pandemic plans canceled for the world premiere of the show in September 2020, the new bilingual adaptation of Zacarías, “Romeo y Juliet”, is finally planned will open Wednesday, May 25 as part of the California Shakespeare Theatre’s 2022 season. While Zacarías and Sanchez are thrilled with their long-awaited premiere which centers a Latinidad story in a classic text, the time away from the play has strengthened the duo’s resolve to delve deeper and unabashedly into the concept of episode.
“I was lighter on Spanish and a little more embarrassed about it in 2020, but as we continued to do the workshops, everyone kept asking for more Spanish,” Zacarías told The Chronicle from his home in Washington, D.C. “It was then I realized that life is short. This play has been performed a million times, so why not? The more we committed to being bilingual, the more both languages were able to be valued.”
One of those people who pushed hard for a higher level of bilingualism was Sanchez. She realized that making one language more dominant than the other was counterproductive.
“Karen really writes for a bilingual audience. But for people who only speak English, Spanish, in very specific circumstances, clearly indicates what’s going on,” said Austin, Texas-based Sanchez. His last directing project at Cal Shakes was the critically acclaimed 2018 production of “Quixote Nuevo”, a reimagining of the early 17th century novel “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes. The show was adapted by fellow Texas native Octavio Solis, who spent many years working as a playwright in San Francisco before moving to Oregon.
Shakespeare’s original source material has a rich history for each of the artists. Zacarías crafted a staged reading of his 2008 adaptation with Chicago-based director Henry Godinez. This reading starred stage and film actress Elizabeth Peña as Lady Capulet. Sanchez also played Juliet in 1993 when she had just finished graduate school, which provided Zacaría with extensive and critical insight into an iconic Shakespearean woman.
The firm commitment to provide equal billing in both languages means there are no surtitles projected well above the stage. For Zacarías, this choice is built from his unshakable faith in the public.
“People have to trust that they will understand more than they fear,” said Zacarías, a Stanford University alumnus. “That’s what I had to go through. I had to trust that the room would open up to me if I surrendered to it, in a way. This piece is about people who surrender to love. When KJ and I surrendered (to our vision), the room grew.
For the book “Shakespeare and Latinidad”, co-author Carla Della Gatta researched over 150 Latinx-themed Shakespearian productions and adaptations and found that more than a quarter are based on “Romeo and Juliet”.
“Integrating Latinidad with classics can provide an entry point for those unfamiliar with Latinx cultures to learn about them through familiar stories, and vice versa,” Della Gatta said. “Whenever classics are adapted and performed through another culture, it sheds light on something new about history. It also reminds us that stories (and people) have to adapt to stay.
In “Romeo and Juliet”, Della Gatta points to a few components that provide imperative texture to the familiar narrative. The first is the setting, which places the action in the unforgiving Alta California during the colonial era of the 1840s and the site of the Conquest of California. In order to end the Mexican-American War in 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was implemented, resulting in Mexico ceding 55% of its land to the United States. Two years laterCalifornia became the 31st state in the union.
the rooms other key dynamic breaks new ground in the annals of Latin representation in a Shakespearean text.
“This is the first Latinx-themed adaptation I’ve seen with Romeo and Juliet as female characters,” said Della Gatta, who teaches a class on LGBTQ drama at Florida State University.
The two cast to play the lead characters in the groundbreaking adaptation are Vero Maynez, who makes her Cal Shakes debut as Juliet, and acclaimed Bay Area performer Sarita Ocón, who plays Romeo.
Reframing the play as a queer narrative in an unrelenting historical setting was an opportunity the playwright and director wanted to explore.
“To put queer history in such a dangerous time, California in 1848, totally raises the stakes,” Sanchez said. “It’s really important that this place feels like an absolute pressure cooker where everyone is prone to violence – there’s so much evidence of violence from that time.”
Offering a fresh take on the play’s inherent violence and creating new ways to access the text with like-minded collaborators is a blessing these days after the past two years have decimated the theater industry. Many artists are still finding themselves picking up the scraps of their strong careers as live shows have started to return from the pandemic. Zacarías, one of the country’s most produced playwrights, is no exception.
Two years ago, his long-running regional hit “Destiny of Desire” was scheduled for a race at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis before moving to a Broadway opening, his debut in New York. However, several variants of COVID have altered these plans indefinitely.
Despite such setbacks, Zacarías is resolutely turned towards new opportunities. Words and stories inform everything she doesand the timeless tale of two teenagers who just want to love each other has become one of its flagships.
“This story has survived the world wars and plagues and everything and we still present it, because good art survives, right?” she says. “I think that explains my bravery. I got a lot braver, that’s for sure.
” Romeo and Juliet “: Written by William Shakespeare. Adapted by Karen Zacarías. Directed by KJ Sanchez. Opens Wednesday, May 25. Until June 19. $30 to $70, subject to change. Two hours 40 minutes with an intermission. California Shakespeare Theater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. 510-548-9666. calshakes.org