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Theater Review

Wherefore Art This 'Romeo and Juliet'?


I'm all for bringing Shakespeare to the schools. And there's evidence--based on the kids in attendance at the Los Angeles Theatre Center last weekend--that Will & Company's "Romeo and Juliet" will, in fact, delight some of the estimated 6,000 grade school and high school students the company plans to reach. But for anyone who's at all conversant with the Bard, this "Romeo and Juliet" is a three-hour exercise in amateurism, a school play in every sense of the word.

Director Colin Cox keeps an eye on what tickles schoolkids and, accordingly, in telling the tale of the star-crossed lovers, he provides nods to the Marx Brothers, Monty Python and "Clueless." The bratty behavior and speech patterns of the hero and heroine are, in fact, so Beverly Hills High it would have been more honest to call this production "Romeo and Juliet's Big Adventure."

Cox makes a brief appearance as a doltish servant named Gregory. It's clear from his performance and his direction that he loves broad comedy, but no other discernible principle guides his directorial scheme. Each performer is on his own to indulge whatever view of playing Shakespeare he or she may harbor.

Conrad Cimarra turns Romeo's waggish friend Mercutio into a man so utterly antic that he seems insane. When he muses about tiny fairies that play over men's faces while they dream, Cimarra appears to be following the little critters through the air for so long that you expect men in white suits to enter. He is determined to turn the evening into the Mercutio show, and this impulse is not impeded by any direction. This lithe actor is, in fact, fascinating, as any hambone of immense proportions is, though probably not in the way he means to be. In any event, the play tilts and whirls whenever he is on the stage.

Meanwhile, Juliet's nurse is played by Susan Ilene Johnson as a tribute to Fanny Brice. Wendy Robie takes on Escalus, Prince of Verona, with the clipped, scary precision of Glenn Close doing Lady Macbeth. Wentworth Miller plays Juliet's intended Paris as an arrogant, brutish, possibly gay skinhead who contemptuously kisses Juliet's hand and then flings it harshly away. When he shows up two scenes later crying at her tomb, you have to wonder just what is going on.

As Romeo, Burke Roberts wouldn't know a verse if it dropped out of a tree and smashed him in the sideburns. I have never heard meter mangled like this--except in parody. As Juliet, Fran de Leon begins also with a cliche of teenage angst, scrunching up her face and rolling her eyes and tromping heavily on the verse. It must be said, though, that she at least seems to notice when the play gets tragic and bravely tries to find a real chord of anguish within herself. Some of the audience may be way ahead of her.

* "Romeo and Juliet," Los Angeles Theatre Center, Tom Bradley Theatre, 514 S. Spring St., Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Ends April 25. $15. (213) 485-1681. Running time: 3 hours.

Wendy Robie: Prince Escalus

Robert Hancock: Peter/Montague

Colin Cox: Gregory

Edgar Landa: Balthasar/Friar John

Chris Finch: Benvolio

Matthew Boatright-Simon: Tybalt

Steven Matt: Capulet

Emily Newman: Lady Capulet

Burke Roberts: Romeo

Wentworth Miller: Paris

Susan Ilene Johnson: Nurse

Fran de Leon: Juliet

Conrad Cimarra: Mercutio

Dan Monahan: Friar Lawrence

With: Maribel Adame, Marisol Adame, Maria Avila, Veronica Carrero, Anita Cervantes, Blanca Cervantes, Janet De la Paz, Frank Gomez, Biance Gurrola, Esmeralda Hernandez, Osbaldo Luna, Kenny Monteon, Marvin Nunez, Cindy Ramirez, Marcos Rodriguez, Heidy Roman, Magaly Sepulveda

A production of Will & Company in association with the city of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Colin Cox. Sets Jerry Bart. Lights Yuki Uehara. Sound Chris A. Flores. Costumes Brenda Wyatt. Choreography Mary Hartman, Jenna Ware, Karen Torbjornsen. Fight choreography Scott Brick. Stage manager Susan Keill.

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