Review: Romeo and Juliet by the Independent Shakespeare Company at Griffith Park, Los Angeles

Saturday night, my wife and son and I went to Los Angeles’ Griffith Park to catch the summer production of Romeo and Juliet by the Independent Shakespeare Company. Every summer, they present two free Shakespeare plays outdoors over the course of the summer (#ShakespeareSetFree). Later this summer, it’ll be Much Ado About Nothing (which sounds great), but you still have a chance to check out Romeo and Juliet before it closes at the end of the month.

Romeo and Juliet by Independent Shakespeare Company (at Los Angeles' Griffith Park)
Romeo and Juliet by Independent Shakespeare Company (at Los Angeles’ Griffith Park)

Longtime readers of the blog know that Romeo and Juliet is pretty much my favorite play. Having taught it so much, I’ve got a soft spot for it. So my expectations are high, very high. Bound for disappointment, right?

Not so much.

Is it a perfect production? Of course not, there’s no such thing. But this is a vibrant, loud, boisterous, at times histrionic version. Exactly like the play.

First of all, as befitting a timeless play, its setting is timeless. Mercutio is decked out in tights straight out of comedia d’el arte. Benvolia–a woman here–is new wave, possibly from sometime in the next decade. Others seem dayglo Edwardian. And all of it is backed by an on-stage band, a four-piece modern rock ensemble the production calls the Lively Helenas, that plays something in between power pop and punk, but then can slow it down to a lovely musical interlude. Very effective.

At intermission, I told my wife that the actor playing Mercutio, Andre Martin, should be arrested. She looked at me quizzically… I couldn’t possibly mean that he was so awful it was criminal, right? No. He should have been arrested for grand larceny, stealing every scene he was in. Brilliant, witty, bawdy, but then turn on a dime sarcastically thoughtful, it’s a great performance, especially when he went out into the crowd for his speeches, interplaying with the audience.

It would be hard for anyone to live up to that performance, but Erika Soto’s Juliet does just that. Playful, she uses her body to show how this young woman is, not yet physically used to living in her own skin. It would have been a great performance even if she had never opened her mouth. But she did, and it was wonderful. Full command of the text, a great song interlude, and completely appropriate histrionics. Normally, I don’t like that sort of screaming, but here it worked, primarily because she had laid the groundwork for it earlier through her dynamic physical performance.

Friar Laurence is played by IndyShakes’ co-founder and member of the Lively Helenas (he wrote the score for the play as well), David Melville. He brought something new–at least for me–to the role, a kind of quicksilver comic relief. His line to Romeo that they stumble who run fast, seems to apply to him as well, since it’s his jumping at the chance of bringing the feud to the end, of coming up with an escape for Romeo, of trying to fake Juliet’s death… well, he’s less than successful.

I’m not sure how much all of these choices were honed by director Melissa Chalsma, another of the company’s co-founders, Melville’s her husband. Regardless, she deserves kudos for crafting a very good production of what can be an easily clichéd piece.

Did I love everything? No, of course not. There were some technical sound issues that were annoying. The removal of the Lady Montague character, in my opinion, takes away from the whole concept that the three major families of the play all are equally struck down by the fates… BUT her absence, may explain in a pop psychological way, Romeo’s fickle nature.

Overall, it’s a great night of theater. Not to be missed. But you only have two weekends left. And get there early, the crowd we were with on Saturday is much larger than the ones we saw last summer.

You will not be sorry… unless you miss it.

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