The Oakland Tribune, September, 1999
Chad Jones

Those star-crossed lovers are at it again.

The Shotgun Players, continuing a tradition begun last summer with the parking lot Richard III, are offering another free late-summer Shakespeare production. This year it's Romeo and Juliet at Berkeley's John Hinkel Park, the former home of the Berkeley Shakespeare Company, precursor to the California Shakespeare Festival.

Although not as ferociously good as Richard III, Shotgun's Romeo is a lean, frequently funny and moving take on Shakespeare's most loved love story.

Not all the actors are up to the challenge of tackling the verse, but the key players have a firm grip on the language and several deliver standout performances.

Trish Mulholland is great fun as Juliet's Nurse, the loving, occasionally lewd, interloper who helps arrange Juliet's clandestine marriage to Romeo. Whether she's gushing about what a good baby Juliet was or wailing over the corpse of her beloved charge, Mulholland wavers believably between silliness and compassion.

Kevin Karrick's Mercutio is beautifully drawn. The actor speaks his lines with such authority and ease he seems a Shakespearean natural. There's a delightful ribaldry to his 'Queen Mab' speech, a playful lustiness in his taunting of the Nurse and a savagery to his fatal duel with Tybalt (Michael Wiles).

In stark contrast to the play's lyrical romanticism, director Patrick Dooley and choreographer Rebecca Salzer have created some ferocious fight scenes. The actor attack them - and each other - with gusto, brandishing sticks and swords with all the fervor of hot-headed youth.

If the fighting is frighteningly real, the play's central romance is only slightly less so. As Romeo and Juliet, Dan Wolf and Marin Van Young are especially good in the early courting scenes.

Wolf's Romeo is, at first, a big boob. Wandering around in a melancholy daze and heartsick over a woman named Rosalind, Romeo is the height of self-involvement and a prime target for Mercutio's taunts. But then he falls hard for Juliet, a Capulet and enemy to his family, and he becomes a much more interesting man.

Played in the natural, mottled light of late afternoon, the famous balcony scene - 'Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?' - is one of this production's greatest joys. Wolf and Van Young delight in their characters' newfound love, finding both the humor and the passion, and set designer Michael Frassinelli's towering balcony is gorgeous against the backdrop of the park's lush greenery.

The fact that this Romeo is a no-frills version is one of its charms. The costumes, by Morgan Forsey, Bella Warda (who also plays the Chorus and the Prince of Verona) and Kitty, are simple but effective and add some needed color to the action.

The fancy costume ball that provides a background for Romeo and Juliet's fated meeting can be difficult to render in a cost-effective way, but Dooley and his crew do it wonderfully well with suggestions of costumes and stately dancing. They couldn't afford a sound system or musicians so the actors provide the music by 'bum bum bumming' their way through.

The heightened drama of the play's second half proves more of a challenge for the Shotgun Players. After the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, when the focus turns toward the tragic unraveling of Romeo and Juliet's love story, the actors become more actor-y and less engaging.

The ending, which features a number of bodies strewn about the stage, still packs a wallop, and Shakespeare's admonitory 'violent delights have violent ends' still rings sadly true.

Director Dooley uses the space well and has actors making entrances and exits through the audience or off into the hilly areas surrounding the stage. At Sunday's performance, Juliet wandered into the audience while delivering a monologue and ended up directing it at two little girls who sat in rapt attention.

One girl - the one wearing the 'girl power' tank top - would go on to comfort her friend in the second act: 'Juliet's not really dead,' she said loudly enough for the entire audience to hear. 'She's just sleeping.' It's a wonder sleeping Juliet could keep a straight face. The audience couldn't.

East Bay Express, September, 1999
Kerry Reid

Though this production doesn't capture the grandeur that the Shotgunners found in spades in last year's outdoor staging of Richard III, director Patrick Dooley has a sure sense of timing and an ability to meld his ensemble into a cohesive unit. Taking over the old home of the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival in John Hinkel Park (but, unlike Berkeley Shakes, not charging admission), the Shotgun crew has a good time with this play. And the swift pace, though it somewhat undercuts the tragic elements, allows a palpable sense of the inexorable nature of fate and the teen protagonists' impulsiveness to come across clearly. Marin Van Young's tomboyish Juliet is a welcome change from the twee waifs one often associates with this part (her habit of charging into Friar Laurence's cell, slamming the door behind her, becomes a successful running joke here), and Dan Wolf brings sweet vulnerability, coupled with smoldering physical vigor, to his Romeo. Kevin Karrick steals the show as Mercutio (but doesn't Mercutio always steal this show?). Trish Mulholland's Nurse and Reid Davis' Friar Laurence share a disturbing blinkered adult propensity for self-preservation in the face of the lovers' unbearable dilemma; I don't think I've ever been as creeped out by Laurence's abandonment of Juliet in the Capulet tomb as I was here. Gendell Hernandez, in addition to wringing every possible laugh out of his hapless servant Peter, does a terrific job with the fight choreography (which, given the concrete playing surface, is no easy task - one false move and somebody could get their clock cleaned pretty thoroughly). If the city of Berkeley could be persuaded to let Shotgun do free Shakespeare at John Hinkel every year, I certainly wouldn't complain.

SF Weekly, April 8, 1999

Michael Scott Moore

"...This is the first Shotgun Player production that's ever left me totally cold. Henry V and others were excellent; Mascara stank; but this strange suburban drama about mah-jongg housewives and mangrove swamps in Florida registered a flat green line on my critic's voltmeter.

The script is by Benjie Aerenson, one of Sam Shepard's discoveries. It opens with a story about Sally Martin, a neurotic mother, scooping a dead possum out of the road with her tennis racket, then walking onto the court and noticing a shiny drop of blood on the strings when she cocks the racket to serve. The whole play is as disturbing as that single unlikely image. It distills the headachey surfaces of the suburbs into something even more headachey - like a David Hockney painting - without ever seeming quite plausible.

Sally's teenage son, Clark, is a delinquent who drives around with friends, killing possums. He picks on a peaceful kid at school named Jordan; his delinquent friends have nothing better to do than goad Jordan into a fight. 'He heard you've been sporting Lisa,' they tell him, Lisa being Clark's girlfriend, and 'sport' being slang for just about any unmentionable word. Sally has no idea that her son's a jerk; but when she learns that he's responsible for most of the dead possums in the road, she gradually goes insane. She skinny-dips in the mangrove swamps; she offers to clean her girlfriends' houses. Her weird slip from middle-classness into moon-worshipping, pagan fugue is interesting from a distance, but the show itself has no life, no chemistry between the players.

The acting isn't the problem. Mary Eaton Fairfield is credible as Sally; Dan Wolf stays within bounds as Clark, although his one-dimensionality sometimes grates. Beth Donohue and Judy Phillips both do good work as dryly levelheaded girlfriends of Sally's. The problem is the script, which builds to a violent climax that feels less cathartic than lurid. Aerenson never penetrates his glossy surfaces, and the flat line of his drama is broken only by sudden, hilarious jokes.

The whole effect is kind of creepy."

Berkeley Daily Planet, September 8, 1999
John Angell Grant

The best theatre bargain in Berkeley right now is Shotgun Players' free performances of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet every weekend through Oct. 3 at the outdoor ampitheatre in John Hinkel Park off the Arlington.

...Shotgun has put together a street production of Romeo and Juliet. The production has a rough feel, but it's charming, and, judging by reactions, it engages the audience. This is not a stuffy museum production of Shakespeare. The actors understand their characters, and understand emotionally what they're doing at each point in the play, so the language comes through clearly to the audience.

Romeo and Juliet turns on the electrifying sexual passion that ignites two young people who suddenly fall in love, but whose families hate each other.

The play is also an examination of the psychology of warring neighbors, and the relationship between love and hate. It suggests that the intimate emotion of hate is actually a twisted form of love gone bad.

A lot of things go wrong in the world of Romeo and Juliet, and a lot of people end up dead.

Director Patrick Dooley's edgy, quasi-modern-dress production contains a number of distinctive moments. The play's opening fight on the street, for example, between the warring Montagues and Capulets, mixed black and white actors, and had a dangerous feel.

Performed outdoors in Hinkel Park, most of the action takes place in the lower stage area, but some of it ranges up into the ampitheatre seats and through the audience, fully utilizing the space.

This production emphasizes the sexual heat between Romeo and Juliet, who are ready to jump into bed the first moment they see each other. They agree to marry on the night they first meet.

Marin Van Young's impatient tomboy Juliet, a very contemporary character, sets the tone of the production. A smart-aleck 14-year-old, she talks back to her mother who is trying to marry her off to a rich guy she doesn't want. Juliet announces, 'Marriage is an honor that I dream not of.' At the top of the play, Juliet's violent participation in the street fight between the Montagues and the Capulets makes a strong statement about her character.

A lot of the action of the first half of the play is driven by the lovers' sexual attraction. Dan Wolf's intense and focused, hormone-driven Romeo can hardly keep his hands off Juliet. This raw energy of the lovers flags, however, in the second half, where the play deals more with the consequences of their forbidden romance, and the production struggles to find its focus. For example, at the start of the second half, when Juliet learned of the killing of her cousin Tybalt by her new husband Romeo, actress Van Young struggled to process the complexity of that situation, and her reactions seemed superficial and speechifying.

Still, there are many good performances in this Shotgun production. Trish Mulholland is strong as Juliet's gabby, bawdy nurse, teasing the girl about her emerging love life. Likewise, Kevin Karrick is entertaining as satirical, big-talking Mercutio, teasing his friend Romeo about his love obsessions.

Gendell Hernandez's goofy, illiterate, alcoholic Capulet servant Peter is marvelous. Michael Wiles stands out as red-faced, rage-crazed, volatile Tybalt.

Reid Davis traveled a long emotional arc as well-meaning, know-it-all Friar Laurence, and brought intelligence and depth to a character who is often played as a buffoon. Tommy Shepworth is a calm presence as Romeo's friend Benvolio.

Doubling as fight choreographer, Hernandez's vivid street fighting, done sometimes with sticks, and sometimes with swords, was exciting.

The eclectic street dress worn by the actors, a mix of contemporary and period clothing, by costumers Morgan Forsey, Bella Warda and Kitty, added to the edgy feel of the production.

Berkeley High Jacket, September 24, 1999
Ben Watson Lamprey

...We've come to expect well directed, if technically sparse, performances from Shotgun, and this production is not a disappointment on either count. The set is functional, considering they have to haul it out of the park every performance, and the costumes are a strange blend of modern and period. In classic independent theatre style, the two houses are somewhat color-coded, with the Montagues in blue and the Capulets in red and green.

This lack of subtlely is echoed in the acting style, but not without effect. Dooley has managed to get across many of the main themes of the play in the difficult environment of an outdoor theatre. The balcony is not just tall, it's towering, and we repeatedly see weapons as phallic symbols.

Gendell Hernandez, the fight choreographer, is to be given credit for putting these weapons to use in a series of great fight scenes. We see swords and staffs flying all over the place in a few melees, and all of the characters seem to be competent, although Tybalt (Michael Wiles) seems a little clumsy to be the 'duelist' he is purported to be.

Mercutio (Kevin Karrick) more than holds his own in both the physical and verbal sparring. He delivers Mercutio's caustic lines with needed irony and sarcasm, and plays well off of Benvolio (Tommy Shepworth).

Romeo (Dan Wolf), although lacking the inherent hold of Shakespearean language that Karrick demonstrates, is played as any true Romeo should be played: pathetically. Wolf has captured the lovable misery that allows all of us to identify with this rejected young man.

Marin Van Young, usually one of Shotgun's best and most versatile actresses, seems to miss the mark as Juliet. She is portrayed as a whiny airhead, and Van Young's attempt at youth appears more like a gawky ten-year-old.

The supporting cast is a real treat, showing their stuff in character roles, with each actor assigned multiple parts. Real standouts are Reid Davis as Friar Laurence, and Trish Mulholland as the nurse, a bright spot in an otherwise somewhat disappointing female cast.

Bella Warda seems particularly miscast as the Prince of Verona. Her lack of subtlety goes beyond being effective to just being a little annoying, and her dramatic style seems out of place as the Chorus as well.

The second act, far more dramatic if somewhat less polished, can become tedious on one's hindquarters, so be sure to bring a blanket and pillow to cope with the hard stone seats. The actors seem to have a somewhat sketchy hold on a few lines in this act, and none are able to cry convincingly in such a large and open space, but these rough spots are easily glossed over by the speed and excitement that these actors are able to elicit.

Although some of the acting is uncharacteristically weak for a Shotgun Players' production, the show as a whole overcomes the formidable handicap of an outdoor theatre to present a powerful, funny, and very well directed play. Hope for a beautiful day and go see this great, and completely free, show.

Los Medanos College Experience, September 24, 1999

Christine Panus

The Los Medanos College Little Theatre was transformed a week ago Thursday into a 15th century village full of fierce enemies, elegant masquerade balls, bloody battles and love, during a unique performance of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, courtesy of the Shotgun Players.

In a special presentation of the Bard's tragic tale of star-crossed lovers and feuding clans, the renowned, award-winning Shotgun Players held the audience spellbound for two hours while transporting them back to a little Italian village called Verona, where the story takes place.

This group of players focused on performance, without all the pyrotechnics other companies might have used. And the audience had no trouble getting into the performance - they were part of it. The Shotgun Players were everywhere. They entered stage left, stage right, stage parking lot C and stage college entrance. They professed their undying love and ranted in anger from the top theatre steps. They talked to the audience, asking questions that could never be answered.

...The Shotgun Players were formed in 1992 under the direction of Patrick Dooley after performing a play in a pizza parlor basement. And the award-winning, Berkeley based troupe never looked back. Their mission is to make affordable, intellectually challenging, entertaining theatre available to everyone...

SF Weekly , September 8, 1999
Michael Scott Moore

Pretty Good Shakespeare

The amphitheater in Berkeley's John Hinkel Park looks suspiciously like the abandoned site of a Shakespeare festival. The slope of a hill overlooking the stage has been cut into steps, which are marked with faded paint that showed audiences where to sit, back when the Berkeley Shakespeare Company convened every summer in the dusty tree-embower'd bowl.

Berkeley Shakes moved to Orinda in 1991 and renamed itself Cal Shakes. So in 1997, the Shotgun Players took over the chore of doing Elizabethan theater in Berkeley parks, including Hinkel. It's becoming a tentative tradition, interrupted by last summer's Shakespeare in the Parking Lot tour, a likably smartass idea that was unfortunately sabotaged by teenagers throwing rocks.

Now the company is back in the park, doing Romeo and Juliet. (On a side note, the play turns out to have excellent comic potential, especially when you remember that women, in Shakespeare's time, didn't act -- female roles were played by apprentice boys. So the original Juliet must have looked more like a catamite than a romantic Victorian girl, and the raw material this suggests for a satirical gay revival makes you wonder why Danny Scheie hasn't tried it already.) However, revisionism isn't what Shotgun is up to, and the company's Romeo and Juliet is very straight.

Dan Wolf plays a strapping young Romeo, and Marin Van Young is a funny postmodern Juliet. Both have California mannerisms that keep the play from wandering too far back to Europe. Van Young sometimes gives up trying to be diaphanously graceful and makes Juliet an excitable neurotic. These parts are hilarious. She gets through the script's clichés with a funny lack of patience -- "Wherefore art thou, Ro-meo?" -- but pays for this comedy later, when she can't quite get her tongue around the most formal Elizabethan language.

Wolf makes an earnest Romeo, sometimes strained, but surprisingly fluid just when you think he's going to sound too swaggering or too sincere. One of his strongest speeches comes after Romeo's been banished from Verona (instead of executed), for killing Tybalt, when he puts real resentment into the lines: "'Tis torture, and not mercy. Heaven is here where Juliet lives. ... More courtship lives in carrion flies than Romeo." And his fights are good: The duel with Tybalt has Romeo leaping over foil-slashes, then kicking Tybalt's weapon across the stage and struggling for a knife. Rebecca Salzer's fight choreography throughout the play has a careening force that makes the front row nervous for its safety.

Shakespeare leaves lots of room for strong work in smaller roles; the question is always who will pull it off. In this case the Nurse, Mercutio, and Friar Laurence all brighten their various scenes. Trish Mulholland is an ideal Nurse, doting on Juliet with a cartoonishly bug-eyed face; in a mild cockney accent she delivers her nattering nonsense about Juliet being weaned with wormwood and falling on her face as a 3-year-old. She's both fond and pettish. Reid Davis is a compelling (and naturally tonsured) Friar Laurence, both pious and hard-voiced, and sometimes ironic and mocking. When Romeo and Friar Laurence wait for Juliet before the lovers' secret wedding, the Friar intones, "Therefore love moderately. Long love doth so./ Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow." Frantic Juliet comes crashing through the door. "O, so light a foot," comments the Friar.

Kevin Karrick's Mercutio has a nice nimble solidity: He's easy with his lines as well as exaggeratedly crude, and gets to tell most of the lewd jokes -- "Flesh, how art thou fishified!" and a good one about Romeo hiding his bauble in a hole -- and Karrick seems to love every word. The verbal parrying between Romeo and Mercutio that climaxes with a merciless twitting of Juliet's Nurse is the production's tightest and strongest scene. Benvolio (Tommy Shepworth) keeping comical score in the background while the two friends argue helps to raise the tension, and the Nurse's offended, horrified glances at Mercutio as he sings about an "old hare hoar" are priceless. The players get the most out of every detail from Shakespeare's dirty mind -- details certain productions in Orinda tend to miss.

Shepworth's Benvolio has a comfortable sturdiness, too. He holds up scenes as Mercutio's straight man but also puts out a sly humor of his own, especially during the Capulets' masked ball. When the Montague boys crash the party Benvolio tries to act normal by humming music while they dance; this is not only funny but also a low-budget way to meet Shakespeare's stage directions for music. The velvet, sheer scarves, rolled headdresses, and feathered masks at the party are vivid and bright, like all the costumes, and Michael Frassinelli's set is a clever way of solving the scene problems in one portable-looking, walled-cityish piece, even if you can tell from a distance that it's not really made of stone.

What the show lacks is pathos. I didn't come close to crying. Maybe Romeo and Juliet is too famous to end with any tragic surprise, but somehow the final cadences here didn't stir me. True, some acting is weak -- Katherine Seabron makes not just her Shakespeare debut but her stage debut with this show, and her Lady Capulet seems awkward, while Michael Wiles plays an unconvincing Balthasar and Kevin Karrick falls apart as Lord Montague -- but a necessary sad tension is also missing from the whole production. Though Juliet on the funeral bier looks dramatic, in a light green dress, on a lace cloth, draped in a faint black veil, and the failing light in the park and the flute of mourning doves set an eloquent scene, instead of mounting to some awful catharsis the play stands revealed as a morality tale about blood hatred.

It's good to see the Shotgun Players take over at Hinkel Park, though, and offer a low-budget (free, in fact) alternative to Cal Shakes. They seem to enjoy themselves, as usual, and give Romeo and Juliet a nimble energy that a lot of summer Shakespeare lacks.