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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper


A New Work by Meg Lowey

Or: “A Rose by any other name will smell as sweet”

In the novel Like Water for Chocolate the unfortunate heroine Tita bakes an Chabela cake for her beloveds wedding and her tears, mixed in with the batter, are so potent that all who taste of it are over come with sorrow even as they revel in its moist and succulent glory. I can think of no better way to describe Querido, a latin incarnation of Romeo and Juliet, then as Tita’s fabled cake. Romeo and Juliet is sweet confection to me but very hard to get just right: look for me in the audience and I’m the one grinning manically, and cackling as the body count climbs higher. But Querido is so surprising, so elegant, so heartfelt, I find even my marbled eyes weeping as I wolf down this sweet and bloody story.

Our story curls from the poor slums and haughty mansions of a vivacious but uneasy south american country. In some ways the world is whimsical, (people eat rose petals to know the taste of love, grief can turn youth to age in an eyes blink, letters can be thrown across the sky and waft to their recipients) but in others it is sharp and grimly recognizable (soldiers fill the streets anxious hands on loaded pistols, revolutionaries sing of gore-lockéd liberty peace in bloody streets streets, and children, friends, spouses can disappear without a trace overnight). On the rim of this primed powder keg, Romeo (pronounced “Row-may-o” and played by Charlie Oh), meets Julieta (pronounced “Who-lee-et-ah”, and played by Phoebe González), and kindle a fire in eachothers hearts. Both are fish out of water: he is a child of a revolutionary but a confirmed lover, not a fighter, much to the despair of his friends; the hard drinking agitant Mercucio (Justin Shannin) and Benvolia the wise cracking lady of negotiable affection (Cassie Bowers). She is the daughter of a nouveau riche merchant (Adam King) who wants his daughter to marry into a good family and be a great lady, though his ‘blossoming rose’ would rather spend time in the kitchen with her friend Angélica (Juanita Anderson), the family cook. Throw in a hot blooded captain Tibaldo (Jared Sprowls), a mother who knows what it is to die for a cause (Maddy Low), a well meaning but poorly timed doctor (Alex Zuckoff) and a gringo priest (Alex Benjamin) and you’ve laid our scene. But don’t forget the icing on this bloody wedding cake, three joking and gentle guides: Sor Juana, a nun (Olivia Probetts), Enrico, a soldier (Max Spitz) and Rosaura, a prostitute (Julia Duray).

It is to these three storytellers that we entrust ourselves for ninety minutes of delight and suffering. It is they who lead us from the holy confines of a cloistered church to the wild and screaming exposure of a plaza. The constant travel can add a level of anxiety to the evening as you claw through your fellow audience members to find an optimum seat, an anxiety that clambers to feverish peaks when the story splits into two narratives. There are times when the flow of action is not as fluid as it wants to be, and the ensemble explosions of celebration and violence hits us like a haddock in the face, but the energy barreling about from bedroom to kitchen to alter to fountain, bubbling up in an eddie of longing or keeper hole or conflict, runs clean and sure and carries us along in its embrace.

Yet even if the larger scenes sometimes tremor the prose remains a rock solid foundation for us to writhe in audio-joy upon. Lowey’s script, incorporates enough of Shakespeare’s original lines and enough modern commentary on them to satisfy the purist and the coughphilistinecoughcough, er, modernist. She’s decanted her language from the inks of Garcia Márquez, Esquivel, and Allende, whisked it to sparkling brightness and poured out a hearty, unique flavor. Whether it takes us to a teasing conversation between Angelica and Julieta or reflection on the nature of love whispered to your corner of the seats by an ensemble member (nothing more than a sharing of secrets, of soul holding soul, which is the most reasonable description I’ve heard in many a long year), her speech feels true and strong, perhaps not quite the way we speak today but how we wish we could. The lines to are often gilded with ironic echoes or wound about with gossamer foreshadowings; a chain wrapping around our leg, tugging whenever we think the story might break from its predestined path (spoiler: it doesn’t, but it’s far more creative than the vial and dagger special).

Of course great words are nothing without breath to give them life and lips to speed them to our ears. I’ve been fortunate to see many performances of the ol’ star-crossed pair but there are few I hold in high regard: Albright and Tufts for pure shining affection, Bruner and Hawkins for their electric zeal. Happily, now I can add Oh and Gonzales to the shelf of best Romeo and Juliet’s. They take this pedestal in my esteem for capturing the true sense of innocence, and its loss, that is so difficult to bottle with actors experienced enough. Gonzales positively gambols about, twining herself about her friend and father, gamely posing even as she shys from Dr. Paris, nibbling the nether lip of her poet with the sad eyes. It is so jarring to watch this woman, who snoodled Angelica for news of her beloved, with the moist eyes of a hungry corgi, be winnowed up by despair and be honed sharp as a knifes edge by desperation, plotting her own faked death that will go so horribly awry. Oh, by contrast, is all adorable bumbling, a rocket of passion whizzing about, spouting the most poetical nonsense and blundering into so many double entendres you have to shake your head. And this boy who laughed in the square dodging the kicks of his friends and licks of his mother, who can write the perfect love poem but can’t get around to cleaning his garrett, blows a hole in his perspective in-law. This Romeo and Juliet are just kids, incandescent kids selfless kids. But kids can be brutal when the world comes knocking.

The whole company rides comfortably on the wake of these two each with their little moments of honesty or ridiculousness but some especially noteworthy performances cannot go without mentioning. Anderson swings from first class snits of dismissal to steel-toned orders to rally from despondency, more like Lady M than the “dreaded” Nurse. Bowers too taps the full potential of an often sidelined character. Concealing her feelings from Mercutio, gathering strength to lead the rebels into battle, helping to banish her friend for his own safety, we see Benvolia emerge into a full fledged woman trying to stopper her own feelings for the good of the cause, without success. Our three guides, Probetts, Spitz, and Duray (sounds like a country band, or a western supply store), fully grasp their duties as storytellers, lending melodious neutrality to their words, but are often so moved by the effects that they try to divert the course of their own tale (never with effect), while, when as part of the scene, always uncover an sparkle of humor to their actions, to sweeten the bitterness to come.

Perhaps Lowey’s greatest gift to us is not a masterful retelling of Romeo and Juliet, or a fully fledged world of latin magical realism, but the knowledge that these stories and worlds are inseparably entangled in our own. Our lovers die unmourned and unnoticed like the tens of thousands of children who have vanished in recent times, and the fantastical phenomena that flit through the story like exotic birds solve no problems but only impound pain and make death that much more surreal. But as the epilog reminds us, that the door to treasured story and the uncertain world opens both ways and that perhaps one day memory and love will sweep away distrust and violence like a wave and leave the world a brighter and cleaner place for it. Till then we can scramble after the illusive, and all pervading wonder of Querido, the words its spins for us, the heartfelt amity that touches us so, and the unbreakable story that left us weeping into this sweet sweet Chabela cake of a story.

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