Romeo and Juliet has been staged countless times over more than four centuries. Adaptations have ranged from classic to wildly reimagined. The inevitable new productions occasionally soar, but more frequently either fall flat or do little to move the play’s history forward. (Last year’s misguided jukebox musical version, Invincible, from Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo, may actually have moved it backwards.)
In a new adaptation, Director Emilia Ray and her cast soar in a production that honors the play while taking it in unique new directions. Even more impressive, this Romeo and Juliet is at an acting studio, performed by students.
The production edits the play extensively, removing Juliet’s suitor Paris; he is mentioned but does not appear—and is not missed. The dialogue in the remaining two brisk hours is all Shakespeare’s. It’s the cast’s phrasing, body language and facial expressions that make it completely modern.
As Shakespeare intended, Romeo (the brooding heartthrob-to-be Johnny Briseño) falls for Juliet (Scarlett Dyer) at first sight. Dyer’s luminous performance, in a wheelchair, is captivating. Their teenaged passion feels authentic, from their respective gushing to others about their new love, to the moment Romeo gently lifts Juliet onto a bed.
Juliet’s Nurse (Amy Geist) goes beyond the comic relief provided by the role to mine new methods of scene-stealing humor and warmth. Friar Laurence (Adriane Gage) is called “Father” but adds a motherly component and a wide range to her role. The deaths of Mercutio (Madeline Gillette) and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt (Dennis Mashevsky) are realistically staged action scenes that propel the story toward its inescapable, doomed conclusion.
Benvolio (Julian Watson), the Apothecary (Kira Hoag) and Lady Capulet (Crystal St. John) round out the cast.
Dyer and Geist co-produced the show, a contribution beyond their all-in performances.
The set is simple: a concrete-floored room with a ladder against a wall and a raised area with a ramp to represent Juliet’s room. A Coachella setting is indicated by costumes that include band t-shirts (“ The Montagues”). Music wafting through the window from a skateboarding party at a sports branding company next door, plus the production’s extensive use of recent music, reinforce the feeling of a festival, as do (simulated) consumption of weed and Ecstasy, and an actual performance, by the Glims, a rock band featuring stage manager Lee Staffee.
Romeo and Juliet is both comedy and tragedy, and this production intensifies both. Hilarious in parts, it is also heartbreaking and never more relevant.
Romeo and Juliet is playing next Friday and Saturday, March 31 and April 1 only, at Crash Acting, 1924 Raymond Ave., just south of Washington Blvd. near Normandie. Tickets are $15, available here. Also worth noting is that a new musical adaptation, Romeo Rocks the 80’s, is set to run April 21-May 6 at he Blue Door, 9617 Venice Blvd. in Culver City. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased here.