“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.”
It is a chilling conclusion when Kimberly Scott repeats the text of the prologue again at the end of Romeo and Juliet while standing over the dead bodies of the lovers. You can hear the bitter warning in her voice as she slowly looks from one end of the stage to the other at two fathers who have paid the price of their feud in blood. As her weighty words hang in the air, the lights dim, and Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’s magnificent production slowly fades to black.
Director Ken Sabberton creates a stream of moments that resonate like this one in his sleek interpretation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy that transports the Capulets and Montagues to the Roaring Twenties when two Los Angeles newspaper rivals (Harry Chandler and William Randolph Hearst) fought for control of the city.
It is an extremely physical production with a distinct undercurrent of electricity that zigzags across the theatre-in-the-round set until the tone shifts quickly to a well-earned moment of stillness. Even in that stillness, however, there is a certain level of disquiet. Sabberton’s actors carry an intensity with them that makes you realize that no matter what else is being said, a storm is imminent. And that is incredibly exciting.
Language is all, and the actors show considerable expertise with its nuances. Elijah Alexander stares down his hotheaded thug of a nephew Tybalt (Christopher Rivera) at the party – a lively Charleston-inspired affair – with but a few words and a look that would make anyone stop short when Tybalt spies Romeo (Jack Mikesell) across the room.
Violence is never very far from the surface in any of these characters and the tension that creates is palpable, whether it is Capulet’s response when Juliet (Christina Elmore) refuses to marry Paris (Colin Bates), Tybalt’s desire to pick a fight with anyone named Montague, or Mercutio’s ability to rip apart words like a razor.
I have never seen a Mercutio (Gregory Linington) take command of his scenes and dismantle an argument, challenge, or single word with as much clarity and color as Linington does. He always makes the surprising choice. I mean, come on…this is a Mercutio who, after being fatally stabbed, still refuses to acknowledge it and instead goes to his café table for another sip of espresso where he sits, drops the cup, and crawls on his knees to pick up the broken pieces before dying. Because you never know what he will do next, you can’t take your eyes off of him.
His banter with Romeo is paced to perfection and even the show’s gripping fight choreography, which he co-directs with Rivera, is unusually intricate, full of the kind of testosterone-driven humor that effectively turns the screw in the most inflaming way possible.
Michael Manuel makes the role of Friar Lawrence particularly memorable, as a solution-finder who reasons through Romeo’s problems using all of his centeredness, reserve, and enough intimidation to wrangle the teen into exercising some sense. Kimberly Scott is also superb as the lusty Nurse who bests anyone who crosses her – with the exception of Capulet – in an outspoken performance that is likely the jewel of the night. The constancy of her devotion to Juliet allows us to feel the pain of her loss even more strongly than that of Romeo when he chooses death over living without her at the tomb. That she can reach for the comedy in a way that is believable even when it is broad is the best of all.
As the doomed lovers, Mikesell and Elmore are, for the most part, believable. She is as lovely a Juliet as one could find and wears the stylish flapper costumes of the day like a model but her connection with Romeo doesn’t quite convince. Mikesell is a sweet, idealistic youth who possesses much in the way of comic ability and follows every impulse to the end. His instincts are delightful and through his eyes we believe, however briefly, that this pair might actually escape their tragic fate.
The production loses a bit of steam after the Interval but in the span of three-hours it has ample time to gain traction again, most notably thanks to the urgency of Lord Capulet and later the Friar’s intervention.
Original music by Brian Joseph and costumes by Holly Poe Durbin add to an impressive production design (scenic design and lighting by Trevor Norton, sound design by Cricket S. Myers). Norton is especially adept at lighting that enhances the natural glow of the actors’ skin and here in the outdoors, under a star-filled summer sky, the moonlight that breaks through yonder clouds feels like one miraculous final beat to punctuate the glow of Shakespeare’s greatest love story. You don’t want to miss it.
Shakespeare in LA
ROMEO AND JULIET
Now through July 26, 2014
Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles
The Japanese Garden
Greater Los Angeles VA Healthcare Campus
11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90073
(adjacent to the Brentwood Theatre).
Tickets ($20): 213)-893-8293 or