Nestled in the midst of a peaceful Japanese Garden the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles lays our scene, in the 1920’s complete with pageboy caps and flapper dresses. “Romeo and Juliet” is play that I love to hate. I love the poetry and the blind hope that happy endings are possible. I hate that in productions Juliet usually whines her way through the text while everyone else tries with all their might to force this tale to be an enduring love story. R&J is not the greatest love story ever told. It is a story of hatred and a well-intentioned, yet misguided, friar who believes that he can turn the impetuous infatuations of teenagers into a bridge for peace. The Friar gets his peace, but at far too high a cost. Director Kenn Sabberton understands the true nature of this play, and SCLA’s production is excellent. Christina Elmore as Juliet is a force to be reckoned with bringing with her all of complex emotions and machinations of a 13 year old girl. She knows what she wants, and knows that she’d rather die than not get it, this mind set should sound familiar to anybody who has spent time with Middle School girls. Jack Mike- sell as Romeo matches Elmore’s naïveté and enthusiasm step for step. His exuberance and physicality are adorable, yet his rash impulsivity makes you want to smack him up alongside the back of the head. However, unlike most teens, Juliet and Romeo have two adults who are not only going along with their whim, but encouraging them.
Those two characters are the Nurse and the Friar played by Kimberly Scott and Michael Manuel, and despite the exem- plary performances around them, they turn in the most memorable performances. Scott’s over the top attitude and sass is delightful and provides much needed comedic respite throughout the production. Her timing is flawless, yet when things get serious all of that drops away to reveal a consum- mate dramatic actress. As her counter Manuel, as the Friar, is brilliant. The scene in which he scolds Romeo after the killing of Tybalt is breathtaking. He is the rock and guiding force for all around him until the end when he sees that everything has gone awry. His reaction in that moment, and true reveal of his character, is executed beautifully.
Sabberton’s direction of this production is inspired. Unlike manyproductionsthatapproach this script like a “runaway train” – I’ve seen that description in more than one playbill – Sabberton allows the story to unfold at its own pace, embracing silences and pauses that serve to accentuate the more frenzied scenes. This production also embraces a darker side to the story. Not only the Friar’s cowardice at the end, but also a troubling back story for the Capulets. Through some simple staging and grip- ping performances from Elijah Alexander and Tracey A. Leigh, as Lord and Lady Capulet, a multi-layered history is revealed in a few short moments. It was heartbreaking to watch Lady Capulet decide to leave Juliet to the decree of her husband, not because she was fed up with her teenage daughter’s petulance,but out of self-preservation.
This production is not wholly without its flaws though. With the exception of the costumes and Mercutio’s interest in a crossword puzzle, the 1920’s rival newspaper baron theme wasn’t really carried through past the opening scene. However, as that theme muddied the opening a bit, in hindsight some might say that it’s a good thing that it wasn’t pushed throughout. The fight scenes, which are always hard when doing theater in the round, left a lot to be desired and curiously the invited attendees at the masked ball where Romeo and Juliet meet, weren’t wearing masks or any sort of costumes. With the great care that was shown to the details of the rest of the produc- tion, this stood out. However, all that was good far outweighs these things. If you’ve ever wanted to see “Romeo and Juliet” done by a company who truly understands the text and the story, this is the production to see.
“Romeo and Juliet”
Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles Through July 26
Tickets: www.shakespearecenter.org or (213) 481-2273
Kat Michels is a writer, two- time Telly and Regional Emmy award-winning documentarian, poet, Los Angeles theater critic and above all else storyteller. Her children’s book Children Have Got to Be Carefully Taught was released in January of 2014 and is now available on Amazon. www.katmichels.com