Colonial Ruins a Stage to Shakespeare Classic

William Shakespeare’s play about two star-crossed lovers, “Romeo and Juliet,” has pervaded Western culture to the point that its title has become shorthand for any story about doomed teenage love.

There is pride to be taken in a play achieving cliche status, of course, but the downside is felt keenly by the theater director, who must attempt to transcend the familiar and create something new from well-worn material.

The Phnom Penh Players, Cambodia’s most prolific amateur drama troupe, may not sound like the crew to inject new life into theater’s ongoing battle to keep “Romeo and Juliet” fresh, but by the end of their new production, the audience member was lost in the familiar story and captivated anew by the singular setting, transfixing production design and confident acting.

Premiering last Friday and playing its second and final two-night run this coming weekend, the Players’ version of the iconic play is billed as a spaghetti western and retitled “Romeo Y Juliet.” It ditches the conventional theater stage for the Mansion, a dilapidated colonial building between the Royal Palace and the riverside that is enjoying a second life as an entertainment venue.

The Phnom Penh Players’ long-running, fluid collective of expat amateurs and, increasingly, young local actors are a ragtag bunch. This time around, the talented cast led by director Paul de Havilland have pulled off a fine performance.

Several actors gave standout performances. Cecelia Marshall as Juliet has a presence that far outweighs her spritely stature. Crizitian Velayo’s Romeo is more overwhelmed by the power of the whirlwind romance than Juliet, but the actor stands his ground well enough alongside the polished delivery of the young American actress.

Juliet’s father, Lord Capulet, is played by Greg Holdsworth, who tears the stage apart in one scene that commanded an immediate round of applause on Saturday night.

The lighting on the old background is hallucinatory at times, and the score is an eclectic combination of recorded song selections and live musicians playing familiar spaghetti western themes, including Ennio Morricone’s famous refrain from Clint Eastwood’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

Film adaptations explored the possibilities for reinterpreting Shakespeare, such as in Baz Luhrmann’s iconic 1996 version of “Romeo + Juliet” starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. The spaghetti western theme of the Players’ adaption is drawn from that film and is a reflection of cinema’s inescapable influence on the play; setting cowboys against the ruined mansionis a curious choice, but offers a degree of playfulness that ensures that the dialogue never drags.

It is neither surprising nor disappointing that the imposing backdrop also dominates, rendering some of the play’s most noted themes diminutive, or excising them completely. Religion, for example—a key element in the original—is barely discernible in this production, despite the near omnipresence of Friar Lawrence, played with authority by Gordon Barnes.

In many ways, the setting is a reflection of Shakespeare’s play—a relic of a bygone era, a monument that retains the essence of the beauty and captivating quality it had in its day. In its persistence, however, it has also acquired something else.

The Players’ production shows why these tragic lovers persevere, both inside and outside of the play’s densely poetic language.

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