A small gray lizard, ducking its head and blinking in the afternoon light, darts out from under a wooden plank at the edge of the unpaved courtyard. A resident of the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, the tiny reptile begins to run forward across the yard, but suddenly stops. To its left, a four-piece band has abruptly launched into an original tune with a decidedly Latin flavor, while directly in front, about 20 feet away, a boisterous troupe of actors, happily shouting and clapping, begin to move in a large, celebratory dance.
These are the members of We Players, a one-of-a-kind San Francisco-based theater company, and the lizard has just found itself in the middle of a rehearsal for William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet,” done Petaluma Adobe style.
Apparently, even lizards can be critics. Or perhaps this one merely suffers from stage fright.
Either way, in a fraction of the time it takes the dashing Romeo (Mohammad Shehata) to fall head over boots for the lovely and exuberant Juliet (Maria Leigh) - which is to say, instantaneously - the scaly little visitor turned tail and disappeared back into the warm historic edifice of the Adobe.
“We’re working on the Capulet ball scene, where Romeo and Juliet see each other for the first time,” explains stage manager Moira McGovern. “We’re practicing transitions. This show is particularly tricky in terms of transitions, because it takes place all over the Adobe, and the audience has to literally get up and move with the story. They even join in sometimes.”
Welcome to the wacky world of We Players, a 16-year-old company committed exclusively to site-integrated performance, a fancy way of saying they stage classic plays in public places, particularly state parks. The company has staged a claustrophobic “Hamlet” on Alcatraz Island, unleashed the bloody “Macbeth” within the castle-like walls of Fort Point, and led audiences on a seaside journey through the aquatic French fairytale, “Ondine,” at San Francisco’s Sutro Baths.
Stories as beloved as “Beowulf” and “The Odyssey,” as familiar as Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “The Tempest,” have been brought majestically to life in wholly unexpected places — on board the historic clipper ship Alma, the sands and trails of Angel Island, the beach at Hyde Street Pier, within the mysterious, echoing chapel at Fort Mason.
This is hardly passive, sit-back-and-watch theater. When the characters eat, so does the audience.
During the party scene, the audience is invited to learn the steps of the ancient Capulet dance and join in. When Friar Lawrence appears to perform a sacred water ritual – a kind of soothing Shakespearean “baptism” – Juliet and her family anoint with water any audience members choosing to participate.
According to Artistic Director Ava Roy – who is directing “Romeo and Juliet” - the Petaluma Adobe is more than just a location where folks will watch the show. In a very real way, the park is also the show’s co-director and a performer too. In fact, Roy says she “cast” the Adobe much the same way the performers were cast.
“I knew I wanted to set ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in a place that was warm,” Roy says, “because, honestly, what happens in this play - which Shakespeare set in Italy in the summer – it would never happen in San Francisco. It’s too cold. This is a very warm weather play. People get stirred up. Temperatures rise, then love happens, and everything else.”
‘ROMEO AND JULIET’
What: A site-integrated, interactive performance of “Romeo and Juliet” staged in a historic Petaluma park.
When: Thursdays through Sundays from Aug. 12 – Sept. 26. Discounted preview performances are held Aug. 4-7, and every Thursday from Aug. 11-Sept. 22.
Where: Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, 3325 Adobe Road.
More information: weplayers.org