ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — These Capulets look more Soprano than Elizabethan. And the Montagues prefer badges to tights.
“Romeo and Juliet” is invading Albuquerque’s watermelon sunsets in an outdoor show pairing it with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
For the first time in nearly 10 years, the city of Albuquerque and the Vortex Theatre are bringing “Shakespeare on the Plaza” to the city’s Civic Center Plaza June 20-July 13.
The co-production will feature “Romeo and Juliet” as well as a high-desert version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” both starring a local cast of 20. The joint venture has been in the works for about 10 months, artistic director and Vortex board member David Richard Jones said.
“We want to make it as New Mexican as possible,” he said. “It’s not just a bunch of Anglo guys coming down and delivering culture to the masses.”
Forget the tights and tiaras. The families in “Romeo and Juliet” will be racially divided into Hispanic Montagues and Anglo Capulets in contemporary dress.
The Capulets are latter-day mobsters dressed in business suits. Their antagonist Montagues prefer jeans and police department-issued firearms. A fire escape will double for the balcony scene.
St. John’s College student Billy Trabaudo of Albuquerque will direct.
The lines of justice blur and resonate with the recent debates over Albuquerque Police Department shootings, he said.
The change in setting and scenery will make Shakespeare’s classic more accessible, Trabaudo said.
“I think the period (settings) intimidate people,” he added.
The moonlit fairyland woods of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be largely implied and set on a 19th-century New Mexico ranch. Jones is the director.
“There won’t be a forest because we’ll be on the Civic Plaza stage,” he said. “But Shakespeare didn’t have scenery, either.
“They’ll all look like a bunch of New Mexico people from the 1850s,” he continued, ” – the hats, the vests, the boots, the pants.”
University of New Mexico senior Gerome Olona will play dual roles as both Romeo and “The Moon,” one of the “mechanicals” (actually laborers) of the play-within-the-play in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The 22-year-old recently returned from six months spent studying Shakespeare and political theater at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He learned to allow the author’s universal poetry to speak for itself.
“They’re doing things 200 years ago that we’re still doing today – falling in love and getting in fights,” he said. “The challenge is to not get overwhelmed by the fact that it is poetry.”
Olona’s role in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is decidedly more comic. The actor will play one of the bumbling “rude mechanicals.” Performed by clowns in Elizabethan times, these incompetent thespians hail from Athens in search of stardom.
“It’s the play-within-the-play,” Olona said. “These actors have never seen a theater before and they’re so excited. They are not the best. They’re very presentational and they use giant gestures and they like a lot of alliteration.”
Seventeen-year-old Sage Hughes has been cast as both Juliet and Hermia, the daughter of a rich rancher in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Albuquerque native will major in English and theater at the University of New Mexico this fall.
Her challenge is to ignore the avalanche of previous Juliets by everyone from Norma Shearer (1936) and Judi Dench (1960) to Claire Danes (1996). Hughes is developing her own Juliet.
“It’s an emotionally draining role,” she said. “It’s a roller coaster for her throughout the show.”
In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the considerably lighter role of Hermia sees Hughes (again) ordered by her father to marry someone she doesn’t love. To avoid the Athenian penalties of death or banishment to a nunnery, Hermia and her love Lysander run away to the forest together. There they meet Helena, who loves Demetrius, and Demetrius, who loves Hermia.
“We end up in the woods, where a lot of confusion ensues,” Hughes said.
The actress sees parallels between both characters.
“They both are strong-willed girls who know who they are and what they want, but their father is dictating who they should be,” she said.
Jones is hoping “Shakespeare on the Plaza” becomes an annual event. He sees no competition in the summer cavalcade of comic book popcorn movies.
“I don’t think we view ‘Transformers’ as competition,” he said. “This is another kind of date night.”