Does the thought of Shakespeare’s Romeo singing Karaoke make you cringe? Don’t say so before you’ve seen it! For, miraculously, in the Declan Adams Theatre’s Los Angeles production of Romeo and Juliet, this gimmick works. Rather than just creating silliness, the scene proves to be a foil for what is to happen in the course of the play. The Karaoke takes place in the first act as Romeo and Juliet meet for the very first time. When it is Capulets' turn, he sings “Strangers in the Night," unknowingly anticipating the driving force of the tragedy that is about to unfold: “Lovers at first sight, in love forever.”
Not all added elements in this production work quite as smoothly. The program informs the audience that the feuding families of the star-crossed lovers will be represented as modern-day Americans. Romeo’s family, the Montagues, is depicted as liberal Catholics, with Juliet’s folks, the Capulets, as conservative evangelical Christians.
On the one hand, this nicely refers to the playwright’s experience in Elizabethan England, when the Kingdom was deeply divided by religious beliefs. But on the other hand, this modern-day setting turns out to be confusing. It is hard to accept the premise of watching modern Americans when the play is explicitly set in Verona, Italy, with a prince as a ruler. Also, seeing people who are allegedly 21st century liberal Catholics and Evangelicals draw their knives in a fight just seems weird.
Luckily, these problems turn out to be not such a big deal. There is an easy solution to the dilemma they create for the viewer: Ignore the director’s note in the program, forget about the liberal/evangelical angle, and concentrate on what is happening on stage. There, Shakespeare’s play gets an enthusiastic and lively rendition. The minimalistic set, in which black boxes stand in for balcony, bed and tomb alike, lets Shakespeare’s words transcend time and place.
Erwin Tuazon gives a charismatic Romeo, and Leigh Dunham’s Juliet is chatty and sweet – yet her performance is full of surprising nuances. An aggressive, high-energy Mercutio (Jeff Holden) adds suspense and oomph. The decision to cast a female actor as his sidekick Benvolio (Jennifer Oakley), lets some erotic sparks fly, for Mercutio constantly—and amusingly—tries to come on to her. Equally unfulfilled remain the desires of the sexually underemployed nurse (Tiffany Ann Price). Unfortunately, she looks young enough to be Juliet’s sister, but she makes up for the sub-optimal casting with her comic talent.
The production suffers from the mixed abilities of the cast and some fumbled lines. After the intermission, with the energetic Mercutio dead and the cute Romeo/Juliet dream team separated, the show meanders through a lamentable dry spell, but thanks to Jeff Hirbour’s direction, the slack picks up again. He delivers a mostly well-paced staging and makes clever use of the venue. The Next Stage Theatre is a tiny space in a Hollywood strip mall. Hirbour deals with its architectural limitations by letting his actors enter—and run at full speed—through the area where the audience is seated, creating uptempo action among the viewers. The production also makes smart use of music in the transitions between the scenes, with sound cuts keeping up the pace and setting the mood, getting more and more melancholic over time.
In the end, first time director Hirbour’s approach of declaring Shakespeare’s feuding families to be modern-day Americans is not convincing, but, unwittingly, his production shows that Romeo and Juliet does not need to be transported into a contemporary framework to provide a timely commentary on intolerance, hatred, and the power of love.