Vanguard Rep opens its Summer 2012 La Cañada Flintridge Shakespeare Festival with Juliet &her Romeo, Matthew Kellen Burgos’s 80-minute 3-actor adaptation of a play you might have read in high school.

 Exquisitely performed by Matthew Bohrer, Sam R. Ross, and Abby Wilde, Juliet &her Romeo features as intriguing a production design as you’re likely to see under any stars this summer.  Though probably for everyone’s tastes (those unfamiliar with Romeo And Juliet’s supporting characters and plot twists may find themselves perplexed), the resulting production is well worth a look-see by Shakespeare aficionados. Not only does it manage to compact a play that usually runs twice as long and can feature a cast of 30 or more, it does so with considerable imagination and flair.

Described in Vanguard Rep’s press release as a “deconstruction of the classic love story [which] examines more closely the impact of time on the powerful and ethereal force of love” and a “reflection on the lovers’ decisions as they contemplate their actions again in their own personal purgatory,” Burgos’s Juliet &her Romeo unfolds inside a giant circle of sand on which Ghostly Father (Ross) forces Romeo (Bohrer) and Juliet (Wilde) to relive their tale of love and woe, at times playing their own parts, at times assuming others’ roles. He does so in a series of ten “circles,” both literal (drawn in the circular sandbox that forms the center of Brent Mason’s surreal scenic design and marked by beads on a huge upstage abacus) and figurative (each chapter of his tale is described as a circle, beginning with “Circle Ten” subtitled “The Pedestal,” and then on to Circle Nine [“The Waltz”], Circle Eight [“The Shrine”], and so on).

Though most of Burgos’s script is taken directly from Shakespeare’s R&J, Ghostly Father’s opening invocation (“May the wrath of the heart of my god be pacified”) comes from the 7th Century BC “Sumer Prayer,” some of his other opening lines are taken from Henry IV, part II, others come from Shakespeare’s “Funeral Elegy for Master William Peter,” and still others are borrowed from The Tempest.

Soon enough, however, we are in Romeo And Juliet territory almost exclusively, Ghostly Father summarizing the young couple’s unfortunate demise using Father Lawrence’s words from the original play’s final moments.

From there, we flash back to the very beginning of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with Ross’s Ghostly Father (as Romeo’s father Montague) expressing concerns to Bohrer’s Romeo (as his cousin Benvolio) about his son’s state of mind in an interchange straight out of Act 1, Scene 1.

Next, Wilde’s Juliet morphs into her father Capulet with Bohrer’s Romeo assuming the role of Juliet’s suitor Paris, and soon after, Romeo is Juliet’s nurse and Ghostly Father is Juliet’s mother Lady Capulet in a scene which has the two women wrapping Juliet in yards of fabric as they attempt to persuade the teen to give Paris a chance. Then Juliet is Benvolio (a role previously played by Romeo), Ghostly Father is Romeo’s friend Mercutio, and Romeo is (at long last) himself.

 As the above paragraphs might suggest, Juliet &her Romeo may well stymie Romeo And Juliet novices (as it more than occasionally did this reviewer), however those with a greater than passing knowledge of Shakespeare’s original are almost certain to find themselves enthralled by the intricacies of Burgos’s adaptation and by the alternate universe the writer-director has created for the fabled young lovers to interact in.

Not surprisingly, Juliet &her Romeo’s trio of stars do memorable work in their multiple, varied roles, tour de force performances that have each of them bending gender and age with equal ease, and if Juliet &her Romeo establishes a less romantic mood than some might wish for, Bohrer and Wilde’s multiple roles allowing them little opportunity to create Boy Meets Girl chemistry, this avant-garde adaptation offers its own distinct (albeit more intellectual) rewards.

A musical soundtrack provides nonstop underscoring as Burgos’s and Shakespeare’s tale unfolds, adding up to one of the year’s best, most complex, and most atmospheric sound designs, and the very same can be said about Ric Zimmerman’s superb lighting design. Jenny Foldenauer costumes the trio of actors in Cast Away rags befitting the sand on which the action transpires, with Ross opening and closing the evening wearing a bird-beak mask and flowing robes.  Hilda Kane is associate lighting designer and Sean F. Toohey dramaturg.  Kristen Salacka is stage manager.

Though the uninitiated might wish to opt for Vanguard Rep’s more linear (though equally compacted) Twelfth Night, which I’ll be reviewing next week, the adventurous will find much to appreciate and talk about in Juliet &her Romeo.

Byrnes Amphitheater, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, 440 St. Katherine Dr., La Cañada Flintridge.

–Steven Stanley
June 29, 2012

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