The 17th annual offering of the Shakespeare Festival/LA, the Bard’s “tale of woe” is set against a modern-day rivalry between two feuding record labels, Capulet and Montague. Aside from a show-opening introduction of the upscale costumed players arriving at what appears to be a glitzy paparazzi fest, this production of “Romeo and Juliet” immediately settles into a fairly traditional rendering of the star-crossed mating of oh-so-earnest Romeo (Maulik Pancholy) and his ravenously smitten Juliet (Careena Melia). This turns out to be a wise choice. Helmer Dani Bedau admirably keeps his large, multiethnic ensemble centered on the subtleties and intricacies of this tragedy of inbred hatred annihilating the cause of true love, rather than twisting the text to suit the facade.
Bedau balances well the energetic playfulness of the Verona youth against the timeworn, intractable prejudices of their elders. Romeo’s cousin Benvolio (Chris Butler) and best friend Mercutio (Michael Mathys) exude a zestful, infectious love of life. They are matched, on Juliet’s side, by hot-blooded cousin Tybalt (Dathan Hooper), her adoring admirer Paris (DeSean Terry) and comical family servant Peter (Fidel Gomez). They all follow the familial intolerances of their elders, Lord Capulet (Tom Ramirez) and Lord Montague (Rif Hutton), without seeming to know why. The production achieves a palpable flow of ominous energy when the course of their lives turns dramatically as the single-minded couple dares to obliterate the boundary that separates them.
Pancholy and Melia handle the emotional evolution of Romeo and Juliet quite well. At their first meeting, gazing at each other across the crowded room of hard-partying guests at the home of Lord Capulet, they appear more confused than enthralled by their immediate attraction to one another. By play’s end, when they are forced to face death rather than be parted, they are so secure in their love that they accept their mutual demise as naturally as they had expressed their wedding vows.
Highlighting the production are the infectiously comical J. Karen Thomas as Juliet’s Nurse and David Nevell as the worldly wise Friar Laurence. Also deserving mention is Randy Kovitz (who also helms the fight scenes), who offers a commanding presence as the much put-upon Prince Escalus.
The understated allusion to the contempo music scene is underscored nicely by the original prerecorded music of underground rock band Lava Diva (Dawn Finter) and composer Gabe Lopez. Snezana Petrovic’s multilayered, sculpture-like setting serves the action well, as do the costumes of Audrey Fisher. Not faring as well is the inconsistent sound reinforcement of Jon Gottlieb.