Young love against the world, does it ever stand a chance? The literary genre’s classic tale of crushed innocence is “Romeo and Juliet,” which Ben Donenberg and the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles are presenting under the tall trees and the night sky in the Japanese Garden at the Greater Los Angeles VA Healthcare Campus.
Theater-in-the-round can be dicey but a sense of missing out doesn’t surface in this production because director Kenn Sabberton keeps his actors on the move. They utilize the entire space, an intimate space, too, darting in and out from every corner, sometimes crouching, sometimes sitting among audience members. Thoroughly at ease, their movements fluid, they never let up on the immediacy and the exuberance.
Not surprisingly, the most exuberant characters are the leads, Jack Mikesell as Romeo and Christine Elmore as Juliet. When they find each other, and when they exchange that initial fate-sealing kiss, they are butterflies first realizing that they have wings.
This reviewer often approaches Shakespeare with trepidation, wary of poor sound quality and acting as wooden as the boards underfoot. When the setting is shifted to another time and place, or when a racially mixed cast is announced, the apprehension only rises. Will it be well staged or just stagey? In this instance it’s pure professionalism: The sound design (Cricket S. Myers), as well as the scenic and lighting design (Trevor Norton) are flawless. If you don’t understand the words, it’s not due to their lack of clarity.
In this production, the story is set in Los Angeles during 1923, the rivaling families – the Capulets (Juliet’s kin) and the Montagues (Romeo’s) – being, respectively, the Chandlers and the Hearsts as they duke it out in a bid to become the city’s dominant newspaper. It’s no mystery who “won,” since nobody ever speaks of the Dorothy Hearst Pavilion, but apart from a few amusing moments at the beginning this conceit fades away rather quickly. When Romeo’s good friend Mercutio (Gregory Linington) sits at an outdoor cafe sipping his cappuccino he’s far more suggestive of James Joyce in Zurich than F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood. One quick aside: Linington is a marvelous actor! But the point is, Capulets and Montagues could be rival sports teams, opposing politicians, or even competing art movements, say the Fauvists and the Futurists.
Setting the story during the Roaring ‘20s in L.A. strains the mixed race casting a little (more believable if we were in Harlem), but ultimately isn’t a concern. However, the era does allow us to luxuriate in Holly Poe Durbin’s costume choices, and to marvel at the dance choreography of Susan Goldberg.
I’ve indicated already that the acting is vibrant – vibrant and peppy for the leads; vibrant and well grounded in the case of Friar Lawrence (Michael Manuel); vibrant and impetuous in the case of Lord Capulet (Elijah Alexander); vibrant and sassy (think Martin Lawrence in “Big Momma’s House”) in the case of Juliet’s nurse (Kimberly Scott), and so on.
The remaining cast is well integrated and balanced, whether it’s the vengeful, snarling Tybalt (Christopher Rivera) or the smug Paris, Juliet’s other suitor (Colin Bates), who looks like he should be wearing an “I Like Ike” button on his lapel.
Tragedy crushes the fragile dreams of Romeo and Juliet, but this finely crafted, well acted rendition of their story fully conveys why their dreams, in Shakespeare’s exquisite prose, are with us to this day.
“Romeo and Juliet”
Where: Japanese Garden at the Greater Los Angeles CA Healthcare Campus, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Through July 26. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (gates open at 6:30 for pre-show picnics)
How much: $20, $49, plus premium $70 (includes box dinner)