Shakespeare by the Sea reimagines ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in Hermosa, Manhattan

After a pandemic-induced absence, Shakespeare by the Sea returns to the Valley Park amphitheater in Hermosa Beach on Wednesday, July 13. Photo by Kevin Cody

by William Beverly

Shakespeare by the Sea (“SBTS”) has returned to live, outdoor, admission free performances after two years of a COVID-imposed exile, which limited offerings to virtual presentations.  But the hiatus did the Company no harm. They have returned for their Silver Anniversary Season with two of their strongest productions in many years.  

The Company held its traditional opening in Point Fermin Park on June 23 through June 25 with “Much Ado About Nothing,” a fast paced comical farce with some thoughtful, soliloquies directed by Amanda McRaven; followed by Romeo and Juliet the next weekend. “Much Ado About Nothing” was expertly managed and performed. Considering the short rehearsal time and the fact that many actors have parts in both plays this summer, in addition to handling the stage assembly and lighting duties, the results were nothing short of remarkable.

The coup de gras of retiring founder Lisa Coffi’s final season, however, is a stunning “Romeo and Juliet.” Before I describe the experience, let me tell you something about the writer. I began attending performances of Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theater in Balboa Park in San Diego over 50 years ago. I have followed SBTS for about 20 years at various parks throughout Southern California.  My interest in Shakespeare is primarily in the language. The tales are secondary: I find my appreciation and satisfaction in the grammar, the syntax, and the new ways that Shakespeare makes us see the world with his linguistic skills. For that reason, I can say that I am often stimulated or impressed, but never emotionally moved. I do not pity Hamlet nor any of the succession of dethroned Kings, though I admire their speeches. I have felt the same way about “Romeo and Juliet:” lovely passages but never moved to empathy. Maybe the language was too much of a distraction, or possibly even a bit of a barrier.  

I attended the SBTS opening weekend of “Romeo and Juliet” and something fresh and unusual occurred. It bears reminding, lest our expectations be frustrated, that “Romeo and Juliet” is not a romance in either the medieval or modern sense – it is a tragedy, and tragic it certainly is. All the hope and enthusiasm of youth and young love is crushed by the weight of feuding families and bitter rivalries.  

In spite of knowing everything that was going to happen, I was surprisingly moved by the tragedy of these two young lovers. Credit Director Stephanie Coltrin for reimagining how this play should be staged. The first thing I noticed were the outstanding costumes by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg. The colors, the forms, the flow, the complements and the contrasts were perfect.  The apparel was something that would stand out even in a much larger budget theater company.  And maybe being so adorned helped inspire the cast, which delivered every line with passion and grace.  

The show begins and ends with Juliet. Jackie Lee, a raven haired beauty with sparkling, dark eyes perfectly plays the part. I am exercising tremendous restraint in refraining from an effusive blazon extolling the physical beauty of this Juliet. Lee spoke her lines clearly and unhurriedly, as though she was actually thinking and feeling as the character. She captured the youthful naivety of a 17-year-old cloistered from the outside world in a stately yet claustrophobic castle. She is an innocent with no thoughts of love until she meets her Romeo.

Her Romeo, played energetically by Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott, is an exuberant fool ruled more by his passions than is his woman – a departure for Shakespeare. In a matter of days, Romeo falls in love with Rosaline, falls out of love, falls in love with Juliet, and is hurriedly married to her.  During the same few days, he is in a rage against the Capulets, becomes the diplomat and peacemaker between the warring families, then falls into a fury when Mercutio is killed. Mpinduzi-Mott explores these contrasts and inconsistencies with a wild, almost reckless abandon. He is convincingly unstable and irrational while Juliet remains constant, if not confused, causing one to reflect ‘who is Romeo’ or better yet, “wherefore art thou Romeo?”

Sympathy builds for the young lovers as they are tossed about in a storm of circumstances they cannot control. Romeo is ruled by his passions, and Juliet is controlled by her family, and the senseless feud – both prisoners of overwhelming forces.

Brendan Kane. as Mercutio, expands the perception of the character with a mischievous humor, which compliments his fierce loyalty and quick aggression. Kane’s physical wit, and fury  energizes the entire production. He is the engine that propels the narrative when the plot threatens to drag.

We all know what happens in the end. “Romeo and Juliet” is the most tragic of all Shakespearian tragedies. The power is derived, in no small part,, from the intimacy and minimized scale in which the final act plays out. Hamlet concludes with four deaths in a congregation of royalty in the castle confines. One death is intentional and three are accidental. In “Romeo and Juliet,” the final scene takes place in a family crypt with Romeo and Juliet alone, and each taking their own life in the mistaken belief that the other is dead. Whether that difference in device accounts for the power of the scene is a subject for a full dissertation. In this particular presentation, the power is also due to the performances of Jackie Lee and Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott, who seduce us into the credibility of their characters. They lead us to believe in Juliet and Romeo, and to care about them, which is why, after fifty years of focusing on the language, I was more moved than I had ever been by a performance of a Shakespearian play.

Celebrate the Twenty-fifth Anniversary of SBTS with a picnic at your local park and enjoy these  powerful performances. “Much Ado About Nothing” is a strong ‘should do’, and “Romeo and Juliet” is a definite “must see.”

South Bay schedule:

Romeo & Juliet Hermosa Beach: Valley Park Wed., July 13 at 7 p.m.

Much Ado About Nothing Hermosa Beach: Valley Park Thurs., July 14 at 7 p.m.

Romeo & Juliet Manhattan Beach: Polliwog Park Thurs., July 21 at 7 p.m.

Much Ado About Nothing Manhattan Beach: Polliwog Park Fri., July 22 at 7 p.m.

Much Ado About Nothing Torrance: Wilson Park Sat., July 30 at 7 p.m.

Romeo & Juliet Torrance: Wilson Park Sun., July 31 at 7 p.m.

For other production locations, dates, and more information, visit ER


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