Graffiti-covered inner-city walls, dumpsters, and assorted skid-row detritus provide a startling but effective backdrop for A Noise Within’s Romeo And Juliet, director Dámaso Rodríguez’s electrifying new look at the age-old classic.
Though at first glance West Side Story might appear to be this R+J’s point of departure, Rodriguez has not re-imagined Shakespeare’s tale of doomed teen love in a gang-warfare setting.
Instead, the co-founder of L.A.’s much-missed Furious Theatre Company has been inspired by a recent trip to Cuba, where he witnessed artists making theater in the most unlikely of locations under the most trying of circumstances, sort of like the actors playing actors acting Shakespeare in the Romeo And Juliet now on display at ANW’s state-of-the-art Pasadena digs.
When not embodying Montagues and Capulets, cast members sit scattered around the stage watching their fellow actors perform, a number of them following along in their pocket-book scripts while others use the abovementioned dumpsters as percussion instruments adding dramatic beats to sound designer Martín Carrillo’s musical underscoring.
Rodriguez’s ultramodern approach to a four-century-old play provides added incentive for his stellar cast to get down and dirty with iambic pentameter, making this Romeo And Juliet as intelligible to contemporary ears as Shakespeare can get.
Dramatic moments are gut-wrenchingly real, romantic scenes crackle with extra passion, and comedic lines hit the mark where in a different setting and style they might get overlooked.
As Shakespeare’s most romantic teen hero, L.A. favorite Will Bradley blends emo intensity and lean-and-hungry sex appeal, whether smacked in the face by love or raging against the obstacles fate has put in his way.
As for Ireland’s most recent gift to Los Angeles theater, Donnla Hughes is pure magic from Juliet’s first entrance, ethereal beauty mixed with fire and grit to spellbinding effect.
A charismatic Rafael Goldstein gives an explosive, you-can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him performance as Mercutio, June Carryl’s versatility dazzles as an uber-macho Prince and a delightfully quirky Nurse, and Robertson Dean does his accustomed masterful work as the most well-meaning of Friars.
A Noise Within treasures Alan Blumenfeld and Jill Hill shine brightly too, he as Juliet’s bombastic bear of a father and she as the girl’s chain-smoking, cocktail-guzzling “I’m ready for my reality TV close-up” mom.
Christian Barillas doubles terrifically as a sleek tiger of a Tybalt and a well-meaning Friar John, Amir Abdullah plays Juliet’s rejected suitor Paris with so much earnest charm that you almost find yourself rooting for him (almost), and Charlotte Gulezian’s tomboy girl Benvolio is a spunky treat.
Even smaller roles are meticulously rendered by fight captain Chase Green (Gregory), Carina Haller (Page), Seven Pierce-English (Abram), Marcos J. Ruiz (Balthasar), Lawrence Sonderling (Montatgue), Kathryn Ventress (Lady Montague), and Troy Whiteley (Sampson).
Credit designer Angela Balogh Calin for the wall-to-wall tagged set that serves as backdrop, her eclectic blend of costumes giving this Romeo And Juliet a fashion look that might easily make a splash on a Milan runway. Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting is impressive as always. (The lit from within party frocks and illuminated lunch bags are particularly stunning.) Saundra Montijo’s wigs and makeup design and Dillon Nelson’s suitably grungy props complete Romeo And Juliet’s eye-catching production design. (Only a string of hanging dolls that look eerily like dead babies proves a problematic design choice.)
Oh, and in case you’re wondering whether knives or guns may have become weapons of choice in R+J’s requisite street battles, contemporary setting or not, there are rapiers aplenty, and with Ken Merckx choreographing the swordplay, I can’t recall ever seeing Capulet vs. Montague action as edge-of-your-seat exciting as this.
Matthew Leavitt is assistant director/dramaturg. Malia Arguello is stage manager and Emily Burst is assistant stage managers. Sophie Olson is movement coach.
Entrusting their Romeo And Juliet to Dámaso Rodríguez has proven an inspired choice by ANW producing artistic directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott. Rodríguez’s very first Shakespeare production ever turns out to be one of A Noise Within’s best.
A Noise Within, 3352 East Foothill Blvd, Pasadena.
February 20, 2016
Photos: Craig Schwartz