Imagine Romeo and Juliet as unhappy teenage vampires, acting out their doomed love as vigilantes along the Mexican-U.S. border. Or as the Bard might have begun:
Two fam’lies, both alike in vampire blood,
In the Southwest, at night, where lies our scene,
From ancient grudge, so long misunderstood,
Face off in anguished strife with means unclean;
Then from the fatal loins of these two foes,
A pair of star-crossed lovers risk their life,
Subvert old Shakespeare’s plot and dare propose
To dream of better than their parents’ strife.
Well, you get the idea. Shakespeare starts “Romeo and Juliet” with a full 14-line sonnet in this vein, but this is just a newspaper, so what do you expect?
Meanwhile, over at the Grey Box, you have to hand it to playwright Philip Real for a juicy idea in “Cactus,” the premiere of a work in progress. Unfortunately, the result is rather more staid than the presence of vampires promises. There’s more standing around in lovelorn lament or family argument than you’d expect from the fervid poetry and propulsive action of his Shakespearean model.
So ultimately, all “R&J” contributes is the sketch of a plot, which is the least significant thing about it. “Cactus” is really more like the doomy, melancholy vampire stories of popular movies and novels.
Its cleverest idea is that the vampires have been forced into service by the U.S. government to control the border by picking off illegals with their fatal kisses. Unsurprisingly, this work falls mainly to the young, attractive vampires. The true villain is the government agent who enforces their quotas. (In spite of the newly made vampires, they seem to be dying out, which I don’t understand, though I may have missed something.)
Anyway, Ron (18, but 84 in human years), an idealist who refuses to do border patrol work, meets embittered Julie (17 or 73), who feels trapped by the family job, and tries to get her to run away to somewhere really wonderful, like Las Vegas or New York (no points for imagination, there). Ron’s wooing contains the play’s only poetry, a nod to Shakespeare; would there were more.
Julie’s brother Ty (Tybalt, if you’re keeping score), who’s really into his government work and keeps a string of girls to help, is incensed. He and Ron fight and Ron kills him, which forces the families to face each other, where we discover the origin of their enmity. And then comes the ending, with a twist.
The whole thing is under 75 minutes. If we’re still comparing this to Shakespeare, the plot is just too thin. It’s noteworthy there’s no Mercutio character, or Friar, though I don’t much miss the latter.
Capably directed by Kyle Bostian, “Cactus” features a wide, empty set by Shawn Smith with a border fence in front and a series of projections behind, some of them lovely desert nightscapes (aka vampire time). But Mr. Bostian’s scope is hampered by the static quality of many scenes.
The two best performances are both by Tom Driscoll, as the rancorous Ty and the unctuous government agent. Corwin Stoddard and Christine Starkey are attractive as the young lovers, though without much variety or range. Nick Mitchell, Vince Ventura and Cynthia Sulemana (the parents) complete the cast, with some also playing other small roles.
While early on, it seems to be spinning its wheels, the story could especially use more development in the latter stages. But mainly, I think Mr. Real needs to pursue more vigorously either (or both) the comedy and tragedy. For example, some funny lines feel inadvertent, while Julie’s mom has a touching little soliloquy that feels extraneous. The play just isn’t sure of itself: It needs to pursue its good ideas further.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.