In Berkeley: Pizza, beer and ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Russian Mafia Edition)

Did I mention we were sitting underneath a fully operating pizza joint? Consider those occasional bumps, screeches of a chair being dragged and knocks from the pipes to be bonus effects. This is theater that puts hair on your chest.

Rival factions take no prisoners in the Russian Mafia-themed Romeo and Juliet at Impact Theatre
Rival factions take no prisoners in the Russian Mafia-themed Romeo and Juliet at Impact Theatre
In Review

Romeo and Juliet

3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars - 'Sweet Stuff'
Impact Theatre, Berkeley
Directed by Melissa Hillman (also Artistic Director)
Managing Director: Cheshire Isaacs
Through March 26, 2011
www.impacttheatre.com
Review by
Rival factions take no prisoners in the Russian Mafia-themed Romeo and Juliet at Impact Theatre
Rival factions take no prisoners in the Russian Mafia-themed Romeo and Juliet at Impact Theatre

Pizza, beer and a play. And blood. Yes, it was just another Saturday night. Berkeley is many things. But dull is not one of them. Light rain fell as we parked the workhorse Honda near the Peace Wall and headed up to California Sushi for a pre-show bite. Earlier in the week Loni and I had bumped into Cheshire Isaacs at the opening of Ruined at Berkeley Rep, his day job as art director. He suggested we come out to Impact Theater where he’s managing director. Their latest show, a re-imaged version of Romeo and Juliet, promised to be one to remember, “like you’ve never seen it.”

So here we were walking the streets of Berkeley again. Turns out Groupon works. California Sushi was spilling over. Instead we headed up to University to our standby, a little noodle spot, Ryowa Ramen– nothing fancy, just hits the spot… although I’m not sure it goes all that well with The Mummy and Brendan Fraser. Others, though, seemed to enjoy watching it on the tiny tube at the place.

Had I had played my cards right we would’ve been enjoying slices of pizza at La Val’s. Little did I know that Impact is located in the basement of a pizzeria. And on this Saturday night the joint was hopping. If I lived in the area or if I were attending UC Berkeley just down the block on Hearst Avenue, I’d be all over this place, if only to remind me why theater of all sizes, shapes and budgets matters.

Downstairs the Impact team has done amazing work to set-up an intimate, comfortable theater. The two-thirds thrust configuration does well to provide about 70 of us very good sight lines. The cozy space means this is personal. We’re right up close with the actors, who are often walking right past or brushing just near our legs.

As for the show itself: highly entertaining.

I admit some trepidation about seeing Romeo and Juliet, yet again. I was just hoping the blood splatter would be decent. On that count, absolutely–the gun play, fight sequences, and, blood, blood, blood are extremely well done. But so is the acting, directing, sound, and lighting.

This is a solid, unique interpretation of a Shakespeare classic. There is just enough Rock ‘n Roll and modernization (projection, guns in place of swords, colloquialisms here and there) without losing sight of what makes the tragedy work. So when the body count climbs thankfully we’re invested in the characters, most notably in Michael McDonald as Romeo and Luisa Frasconi as Juliet. These two are convincing leads who ably anchor the production with a dash of charisma and a large helping of starry-eyed innocence.

The slain Mercutio (Marilet Martinez, center) is flanked by Benvolio (Seth Thygesen) and Romeo (Michael McDonald) in the Russian Mafia-themed Romeo and Juliet at Impact Theatre
The slain Mercutio (Marilet Martinez, center) is flanked by Benvolio (Seth Thygesen) and Romeo (Michael McDonald) in the Russian Mafia-themed Romeo and Juliet at Impact Theatre

Did I mention we were sitting underneath a fully operating pizza joint?

Consider those occasional bumps, screeches of a chair being dragged and knocks from the pipes to be bonus effects. This is theater that puts hair on your chest. It’s rough and tumble. You can bring food and drink to your seat. In fact, I think the couple in the front row were making Bloody Marys during the performance. No joke. Kudos to them for inspired drink selection. Imagine being an actor and watching a miniature bar in action, just before you slit your throat and spurt blood across the floor. To say I was loving this would be an understatement.

At intermission, actors who were killed off were seen heading for the exits.

Juliet (Luisa Frasconi) ponders her new love from her balcony in the Russian Mafia-themed Romeo and Juliet at Impact Theatre
Juliet (Luisa Frasconi) ponders her new love from her balcony in the Russian Mafia-themed Romeo and Juliet at Impact Theatre

A few minor nits. The show runs a little long, but take that one up with William. The sobbing and moaning could be dialed down just a tad, lest it get too melodramatic- the visuals here are more than enough to get the point across. And although the Russian Mafia theme is not fully realized, I though it was pretty darn cool, and for the most part worked. Also I’m not sure we needed Juliet topless, albeit briefly. I’m all for the female form and can understand the need to heap on the sex to suit the style here, but it felt distracting more than anything.

There was one short music video-like sequence with sizzling score and a light strobe as the two lovers exchanged vows sans dialog. A slick scene. I wouldn’t have minded seeing a similar effect used again in the second act.

There’s a reason why Impact Theatre has been around since 1996. It’s unpretentious theater. Or call it drive-in theater; without the cars and frisbees. I won’t soon forget this evening. Loni and I talked about the production all the way back down 880. And isn’t that what inspired, grass-roots theater is all about? Just remember to arrive with an empty stomach and an open Berkeley state of mind.

Romeo and Juliet
Impact Theatre, Berkeley
3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Melissa Hillman (also Artistic Director)
Managing Director: Cheshire Isaacs
Through March 26, 2011
Tickets: $12 (students) / $17 in advance or $15 / $20 at the door
www.impacttheatre.com

Noteworthy

  • This is not A.C.T. Impact Theatre budget: $61,000 (check the pizza pie chart in back of the program).
  • Donations will get you: a sweet tax deduction, reserved seats, free pizza and beer (!), gifts such as Impact T-shirts and pinup girl cocktail books, invitations to donor-only events, your name in show programs and on the Impact website, your name inscribed on a seat, and more — (Ed- in other words, we all win when you support local theater).
  • I counted 28 members of cast & crew involved in this production of Romeo and Juliet. Truly impressive.
  • Next at Impact: Disassembly. Written by Steve Yockey. Directed by Desdemona Chiang. May 5 – June 11. World Premiere.
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