A sine qua non of love stories is that there must be an obstacle keeping the lovers apart. The formula of every Harlequin romance novel, this essential ingredient provides the key plot points for Romeo and Juliet, the prototypical tale of amour beset by overwhelming impediments. Set in 14th century Verona, William Shakespeare’s tragedy is among the Bard’s most beloved and oft-produced plays - as well as the source for what may be the best adaptation in theater history - 1957’s West Side Story.
Book-writer Arthur Laurents, composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and choreographer Jerome Robbins brilliantly transposed Verona’s balconies into Manhattan’s fire escapes, and the warring Capulet and Montague families into 1950s rumbling gangs with an ethnic twist, the Caucasian Sharks and Puerto Rican Jets. In terms of dramatic adaptations, West Side Story is a tough act to follow.
“But, soft!” as Juliet exclaims in Act II, Scene II, “what light through yonder window breaks?” Now adapter and director Ellen Geer has given those “star-crossed lovers” arguably the biggest barrier their renowned romance has ever faced, and it’s a real humdinger: The Arab-Israeli conflict. Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum’s production has reset Romeo and Juliet in disputed ground at contemporary East Jerusalem, with a Palestinian Romeo (Shaun Taylor-Corbett) and Jewish Juliet (Judy Durkin). From iambic pentameter to Islamic traditions, from Elizabethan England to Israel, this version of the Bard’s heartbreaking classic leaps across the centuries and cultures. In this candid conversation WGTB’s artistic director Ellen Geer discusses her daring adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, which is being staged in repertory at the Topanga Canyon amphitheater through Oct. 2.
Why did you reset Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in East Jerusalem?
ELLEN GEER: It’s an incredible story. For people who see it today, it’s what Shakespeare meant. It’s when a culture or a family or parents or political strife within a country - what they can do to suppress young people’s love when they bring the past. That’s why I picked East Jerusalem…
It’s quite an extraordinary place. Because you’ve got, today, the Jewish culture, you’ve also got the Palestinian culture, you’ve got the Baha’is, you’ve got all different aspects in there. So, it’s the perfect place - it’s the hottest place I could think of.
…It’s their home, as far as the Jewish people are concerned. Just as the Palestinians feel that it’s their home…
You made the Arab-Israeli clash the obstacle getting in the way of these lovers.
When searching for a way to bring this old story to the absolute front of especially young people’s minds so they can connect with this story, that’s why I picked East Jerusalem. It’s a place that’s in great turmoil and has been for a long, long time and has not been resolved. I think the young people all want it to be resolved but it’s very hard when they have the imposition of culture stamped on them.
As the director and adapter, how much of Shakespeare’s original play remains and how much did you add and change?
I adapted it to this period… The only thing I changed was to bring it up to date and to this culture. I kept the meter, I did tons and tons of research to find out how do the Palestinians say “god”? How do the Jewish people say the word “god”? I selected the Nurse [Melora Marshall] to use Yiddish, as an old-timer there in Jerusalem… I did it all through research so there’s nothing in there that, to me, isn’t true.
You seemed to perfectly adapt her character, because the Nurse is really a “yenta” [Yiddish for what can be defined as an older, gossipy woman].
Yeah. If you go to Jerusalem - I’ve never been - but doing research, there are so many cultures there. It’s a fascinating place. As a kid, I studied Hebrew in New York City, ’cause I wanted to go and be part of their army, I was fascinated by the whole place. My [maternal] grandfather was a Hungarian Jew.
What percent Jewish are you?
That would make me an eighth, wouldn’t it?
Was Judaism in any form practiced in your home when you grew up?
No, but in my family we looked at all religions.
What religion was your father Will Geer [the actor who co-starred in the 1954 Blacklist classic Salt of the Earth and in the 1970s WASPy The Waltons TV series] born into?
I don’t know - it wasn’t a very religious family… Pop and Mom took us to the Unitarian church, occasionally.
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Are any cast members of Romeo and Juliet in East Jerusalem Arabs, Palestinians, Muslims?
Yeah, Nima Jafari who played the Benvolio character [here called Mohammad Al-loh] and Kamran Abbassian [who plays Mufti John and Jamal, who is based on the character of Abram, a Montague servant]. Nima helped us to understand the religion and gave us the words to use.
Are there Jewish cast members? Is Juliet Jewish?
Yes, I believe she is. And Alan [Blumenfeld, as Juliet’s father, Capulet], of course.
In 2011 WGTB presented MyName is Rachel Corrie and there were repercussions - it was considered to be controversial. Has there been any controversy about your resetting of Romeo and Juliet in East Jerusalem?
Yes there was, and we went over it. Because what is exciting to me when we dealt with the controversy - I’m not going to be specific - it was all done with what we care about is what’s happening to the next generation. It continues on and on and it’s so important to keep talking about it and not just remain static.
…With Rachel Corrie I got a threatening letter from some lawyer and a couple of emails, but I always emailed them back and tried to create a dialogue, which is the whole reason for doing it. If you create a dialogue, hate can’t stay.
How did you transform some of Shakespeare’s characters, such as Laurence [the Franciscan friar]?
To the Mufti [a Muslim scholar and legal expert who interprets the Koran, played by Steven B. Green]. That’s because Romeo is on the other side, so we decided that was the Palestinian side, and so his religion would have had to be Muslim. That was very exciting for the cast to do.
Throughout the play Mufti Zaman appears to be the voice of reason.
Yes, he is the voice of reason. He delivers the prologue. He’s going to talk to you about this tale that has happened, when people continue to fight and believe their beliefs are better than others’. He happened to be on the Palestinian side and there is a lot of peace in the Muslim world.
Please discuss the transformation Tybalt [Taylor Jackson Ross] into a female member of the Israeli Defense Forces?
Because you’re conscripted, as a young person you have to serve in the army - the men and the women. I thought it would be fascinating to put a woman into that part.
Why aren’t the IDF soldiers carrying guns?
It’s a way of not making that the focus and a way of keeping people from feeling I was taking sides. Because in Romeo and Juliet there are no sides. It’s a way to make people see what can happen. And guns are very, very strong images and the Palestinians don’t have them, which is why they make bombs - and we can’t do that [onstage]. So all we could do is use knives. So I thought that would be the equal way of doing it.
Perhaps the best updating in theater history is from Romeo and Juliet to West Side Story.
Absolutely. It was extraordinary and needed.
Now you’ve updated the Puerto Rican Sharks and white Jets, and they’ve become Palestinians and the Israelis. You’ve actually taken the concept and furthered it.
Yeah. Because theater can do so much for audiences. Speeches get boring. Politicians can get boring. [Laughs.] Theater is an extraordinary way to penetrate into people’s minds. I think, Shakespeare being one of the great playwrights and then bringing it to life in a way that can penetrate an audience’s mind as to what’s going on today. It’s important - you have to be very careful when you do something like this. It has taken me two years to work and figure out and do it properly. And not take sides - because the play itself doesn’t take sides. It just shows you what happens.
Some of the reactions from people, usually in the Jewish community, they get angry and think I’m taking sides. The play doesn’t do that - that’s in their minds. Hopefully they’ll start thinking and talking more about it.
In 2014 wasn’t the Theatricum honored as part of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth for its productions of the Bard’s plays?
It was by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, as one of the 14 theaters in the country for presenting Shakespeare so beautifully. It was so great - their plaque was from Shakespeare’s ash tree in his garden at Stratford-upon-Avon.