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Juliet and Her Romeo

It was a remarkable production in Ventura, California (a not-remarkable place for the arts or anything else!). Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, directed by Tariz Shanil. The play was staged without scenery against black drapes, white lights with no gels but in a lighting design that was ingeniously beautiful in its simplicity and mood shifts, the vision of a still photographer working in black & white. There was also no costuming. The actors were dressed like dancers in simple blacks and grays... the only touch was the long, silken scarves used by the two lovers. And a few props, that was all.

It was the story... and the words, the poetry of Shakespeare that flooded the theatre space and overcame the audience... it was as if we were all sitting in the shadows off to one side and just happened to come across this poignant, heartbreaking tragedy as it was unfolding. The actors achieved a sense of reality, a flow of truth that is painfully rare in our theatre, especially with Shakespeare. There were just two performances, unadvertised, both sold out by word-of-mouth, and then they were traveling on across country. All of the actors are Russian as is Tariz (she not only directed but also played the Nurse). The performance was in English...they handled the language and the music of the verse almost without fault and with only a slight British accent. They moved as I've seen the best trained actors move.

It's been a long time since I sat with a tight throat in tears, witnessing and feeling the agony and grief of this early, awkward, raw, and powerful piece of Shakespeare's writing. They captured the heart of the play, tore it out, and drank its blood. The acting was that good! Especially Juliet, played by Elana Lemtov, a woman in her early 30's who captured the self-possessed passion and physicality of a 14-yr old. Self-possessed ... without the insight or experience of a mature woman but with the femininity and bleeding passion of a young girl walking along the edge of a cliff, feeling without knowing, sensing without seeing, alive for the moment without the tyranny of hope. Lemtov's young Juliet enveloped this play with a music I've never heard before. She was simply stunning.

Tariz and her actors have worked together for eight years and travel together all over the world. Their current work includes this Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and The Tempest. Why only Shakespeare? Because the writing is a theatrical essence, Tariz told me. Her company has no name. Why? Because each performance is "their name that evening".

I wish we had had more than the hour we spent afterwards in an excited conversation (mainly about the show). It was raining and they were in a hurry to load their vans and head East to... somewhere.

I have nothing else to report. No one has been able to fill in the details of how, why, who. Perhaps in a few days, a week, a month... we'll connect again. It's a fond wish. As I mentioned, it was a remarkable production... so if one day you get a call (as I did) about an unannounced performance by a troupe of Russian actors, cancel your plans, turn off the tube, and just happen to be there. You'll find yourself face-to-face with what it means to jump into the fire of acting, of theatre, of... anything! You'll find out what it means to "go for it", as if there is "no tomorrow"... and, dear voyagers, the heroic truth is... there isn't!

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A few years later I met Tariz again, in Bangkok. Her company was in Singapore and she was up north at a festival of international artists. They had not returned to the U.S. since the time I saw them The company was intact except for the loss of one actress who was killed in a motorbike accident. Fittingly, her place was filled by a company designer who was also an actress and trained with the company.They were still rotating Shakespeare's plays, which Tariz thought would go on for at least four more years.

This time, we spent many hours talking about her work, about theatre, and particularly about audiences, while dodging the heat, the traffic, and the lack of breathable air in Bangkok. It was not an interview... rather a long, private conversation stretched over days. Some day, I may try to profile her but only if she agrees to it. I don't know why she would.

I hope to see the company's performances again, wherever they are. Maybe this time I'll get the call from her.

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