April 21, 2019

Holocaust Themes Add Historical Significance to ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Mike Bingaman and Savannah Schoenecker in “Romeo and Juliet.”

William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” gains extra emotional and historical resonance in director Shira Dubrovner’s staging at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood. 

The star-crossed lovers are now a German boy and a Jewish girl in Berlin in the 1930s, their feuding families divided by much more than a personal vendetta. 

Black-and-white words and images chronicling the rise of anti-Semitism, Kristallnacht and the Nuremberg Laws are shown on a screen above the stage, while Nazi brownshirts and armbands and Stars of David emblazoned with the word Jude unmistakably separate the Montagues and the Capulets.

“It’s about what happened and not letting history repeat itself, but it’s also a commentary on what’s happening today and about standing up to terror and injustice,” Dubrovner told the Journal. “People think of the Holocaust as 1938 on, but there were warning signs five, 10 years before. It touches on all of that.”

“The star-crossed lovers are now a German boy and a Jewish girl in Berlin in the 1930s, their feuding families divided by much more than a personal vendetta.”

Inspired by the unconventional versions of Shakespeare’s work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that featured time period changes and color- and gender-blind casting, Dubrovner made some clever casting choices. The Nurse became a yenta called Bubby, Benvolio is lesbian and Friar Lawrence is now Gypsy Lawrence. “I wanted to represent other persecuted people in that time period,” Dubrovner said, noting that she developed the play two years ago at the Mammoth Lakes Repertory Theatre, where she is the artistic director.

As for other ingenious twists, the light seen from Juliet’s window is from Shabbat candles and Rosaline, a character talked about but never present, physically exists in this version. She’s a chanteuse who opens the show singing Marlene Dietrich’s “Falling in Love Again” a la “Cabaret,” and later, “Bei Mir Bist du Schon.” There’s also a visual reference to the dance in “West Side Story” and the music includes the “Schindler’s List” theme. 

Dubrovner, who was raised in an Orthodox home in Los Angeles, has had her own brushes with anti-Semitism. “We’d walk to synagogue on a Saturday and people yelled, ‘Dirty Jews’ out their car windows. One time I was with a friend and a guy said, ‘I wish Hitler succeeded,’ ” she recalled. “The main purpose of doing this play is to remember what happened and not let history repeat itself.”

Lead actors Mike Bingaman and Savannah Schoenecker are not Jewish, but the Holocaust milieu resonated personally with both of them. Bingaman, who arrived in Los Angeles five years ago from Australia to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (AADA), grew up with a mother whose master’s thesis was about the Holocaust. “I was very interested in it and always wanted to do a project based in Berlin in the ’30s,” he said, adding that playing Romeo was another dream. “I got to knock two things off my list.”

“I grew up watching films about the Holocaust, like ‘The Pianist,’ and I watched ‘Schindler’s List’ before starting this,” Schoenecker said, adding that she was “moved by the gravity of it, and the pain and suffering.” A San Jose native, she also studied at AADA but didn’t know Bingaman there.

Schoenecker said she thinks “Romeo and Juliet” takes on extra weight and resonance in this new context. “It personalizes the Holocaust. The personal, human aspect of the innocence of love, something that is beautiful, is destroyed because everything is destroyed.”

Bingaman believes that this version “adds a dynamic to the story that everyone knows. This setting brings another dimension to it that adds something to every scene.”

“The beauty of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is it can be set in any place where there is separation,” Schoenecker said, “whether it’s [because of] ideology, religion, politics, personal vendettas, and it can be so incredibly powerful. Shira’s vision really brought it all together.”

“Romeo and Juliet” runs at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood through Oct. 14.