By Andrew Cohen
We should all be so lucky to age as well as Romeo and Juliet. At 425 years young, the iconic play continues to inspire and dazzle, arouse and enrage, scintillate and surprise.
On Saturday March 5 at 1 p.m., William Shakespeare’s timeless classic takes center stage again — this time in a unique amalgamation of theatrical presentation and mock trial — at Freight & Salvage in downtown Berkeley. Tickets are available on the Freight & Salvage website for Romeo, Juliet, and the Case of Friar Laurence. The event will also be streamed on Zoom and Facebook.
Actors from UC Irvine’s New Swan Shakespeare Company will play Romeo, Juliet, and the friar. Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky will serve as the prosecutor and Stanford Law Professor Bernadette Meyler will defend the friar, with retired U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Guilford presiding over the proceedings.
The friar is charged with two crimes: involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. The audience, serving as the jury, will vote guilty or not guilty on each.
In 2019 and 2020, Chemerinsky played similar roles arguing against UC Irvine Law Dean L. Song Richardson in The Shylock Appeal — a comparable performance based on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice — once in Irvine and once in Berkeley. See the 2020 production here.
Chemerinsky has also participated in productions based on Hamlet (2018 in Irvine) and Julius Caesar (last year on Zoom).
“The Shakespeare plays pose enduring, important questions about the law,” he says. “The trials provide an entertaining way to explore these timeless issues.”
Before the event, Chemerinsky and Meyler will decide what audience members will be asked to deliberate — second-degree murder, manslaughter, or another charge — and what count or counts they will vote on.
A full plate
Members of rival families who want to marry without the knowledge of their parents, Romeo and Juliet are advised by a trusted mentor — Friar Laurence — to follow a course of action involving controlled substances, feigned death, covert travel, and forced entry into a family crypt.
Is the plan he devises simply derailed by accident and chance, or has he concocted a recipe for disaster that renders him culpable for their demise? New Swan Shakespeare Center actors Andrew Borba (Friar Laurence), Crystal Kim (Juliet), and Kieran Barry (Romeo) bring the facts to life through dramatic portrayals.
New Swan Co-Directors Eli Simon and Julia Lupton, who will host the event, have seen the concept for these original Shakespeare productions — and their execution — resonate with all types of audience members.
“People love these trials because we bring together the drama of a legal proceeding with the drama of Shakespeare,” Lupton says. “The lawyers do not rehearse together, so the event has a real spontaneity to it. The audience gets to vote on the verdict, which adds another element of surprise. The friar’s advice to the lovers continues to spark debate among actors, directors, and audiences. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? You get to weigh in.”
She notes that the hardest part about organizing the event was finding a weekend date that fit the busy schedules of both Chemerinsky and Meyler. As for selecting Romeo and Juliet for this year’s trial, the powerful connections to modern-day issues clearly stood out.
“It’s an exciting play that speaks to our times and raises important questions about the quandaries we face as a society,” Simon explains. “How do we reconcile the deep divides within our country? Are we able to protect our children against their enemies? Can we ingest substances that will cure the ills that plague us? Is it safe for children to trust adults with their lives? As you can see, the questions that haunt Juliet, Romeo, and this trial are as relevant today as they were when Shakespeare penned the masterpiece.”