The Santa Susana Repertory Company's production of "Romeo and Juliet" is ostensibly set in California, circa 1840. According to the company, the feud is now between Spanish landowners and Western (we assume that this means Anglo) cattle barons.
Time has shown Shakespeare to be particularly subject to this kind of updating and geographical relocation. And if Akira Kurosawa can set "King Lear" in feudal Japan and MGM can successfully transport "The Tempest" to outer space (in 1955's "Forbidden Planet"), why can't the Simi Valley troupe set "Romeo and Juliet" among missions and palm trees?
As it turns out, the moving of the Montague-Capulet romance across a couple of hundred years and an ocean doesn't amount to much of a change at all. Director Lane Davies uses Shakespeare's original language, and Davies' and the production designers' concept of early California fashion doesn't look much different from what we're used to in Shakespeare produced in the traditional, Elizabethan setting.
This is an area of California where many of the people have Italian names (Venice, perhaps?) and stage-English accents, where fights are settled by swordsmanship, rather than bullets or knives. The most obvious changes in language are references to Friar Laurence as "Padre," and an apothecary who shows up late in the play is now a American Indian medicine man. Earlier on, the Nurse (Irene Roseen) calculates Juliet's age by referring to an earthquake. However Californian that may sound, it's in the original.
In all, the setting doesn't make that much difference: While it doesn't make the story any more contemporary (as "West Side Story" did so well), at least Shakespeare isn't pointlessly trashed.
The production's strengths are largely physical: Matt Ventimiglia and Mark Winters' set design is atmospheric and terrific; Sean Willee's costumes are colorful, and the swordplay, credited to choreographer Michael Rossoddo and fight master Greg Michaels, is effective.
More problematical is the acting, which in many cases amounts to little more than reading the lines as quickly as possible. "Romeo" is one of Shakespeare's longer plays, and at times this cast seems to have offstage bets as to who will finish first. Fortunately, it's a dead heat, coming in at just under three action-packed hours, including intermission.
Those who do take their time to establish character--Jeff Allin as Mercutio, Rajan Dosaj as Paris and Barry Kramer as Tybalt, for instance--stand out in their ability to convey meaning, as well as meter.
As Romeo, Paul Johansson is most convincing when grief-stricken, but in the first act is more of an athletic hunk than a romantic hero (nice physical work in the balcony scene, though). And a little more dramatic interpretation from the rest of the cast would have communicated the story better. Evidently, for instance, the Capulets are supposed to be Spanish. But Ishmael (East Carlos) rushes through his speeches as Juliet's father so quickly that his accent comes and goes. And none of the rest of the family looks particularly Spanish.
The play is being presented inside a large tent, erected behind Simi Valley City Hall. Furnished with relatively comfortable plastic chairs and with decent sound and lighting, the facility is one of the more interesting performance spaces in Ventura County.
The Santa Susana Repertory Company is an intriguing mixture of amateurs and professionals. Fans of the TV soap opera "Santa Barbara" might recognize many of the players and backstage people--including director Davies--in this production.
* THE DETAILS: "Romeo and Juliet" is scheduled to run Fridays through Sundays through June 24, plus July 15 and 20. Sunday performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, curtain is 8:30 p.m. Admission is $15; all seats are reserved. Simi Valley City Hall is at 2929 Tapo Canyon Road. For information, call 371-1715.