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THEATER REVIEW

Star-crossed lovers in the Old South

Antebellum 'Romeo and Juliet' is sexy but not revelatory.

September 18, 2003|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

What's in a directorial concept? Would this new "Romeo and Juliet" -- set, its subtitle tells us, in antebellum New Orleans, 1836 -- smell as sweet in any other period? With romantic leads as to-die-for as Jason Van Over and Tessa Thompson, even the Ice Age would seem hot. As sensuous as they are sentient, as ardent as they are articulate, this is a pair of lovable lovers we can fall for almost as quickly as they do.

Of course, there's more to Shakespeare's star-crossed tragedy than nookie. For the Montague/Capulet feud, director Michael Michetti has conjured a subtle, fascinating historical milieu: Juliet is a Creole from New Orleans' French-inflected, largely African American establishment elite, while her Romeo represents a burgeoning class of white interlopers whose descendants will surely one day vote for Huey Long. A fiercely sarcastic Cajun Mercutio (J. Todd Adams) voices many of the latter set's class resentments, even giving a line about "minstrels" an ugly racial sting.

Ultimately, though, this early-American overlay, so recognizable yet so strange, feels more like a curiosity than a revelation. It does have its compensations -- bracing voodoo chants led by the extraordinary Bernadette L. Speakes, and Carlease Burke's deliciously conspiratorial Creole Nurse. And it does give Michetti's team -- costumer Alex Jaeger, scenic designer Tom Buderwitz, lighting designer Dan Weingarten, sound designers Julie Ferrin and Martin Carrillo, and composer Paul Hepker -- a golden opportunity to showcase the stunning, capacious, spanking-new Boston Court.

We certainly can't begrudge Michetti's ambition in cooking up such an intriguing if overstuffed feast, especially since what keeps it simmering is genuine sexual heat. Indeed, the frisson between Thompson and Van Over has a lot less to do with the forbidden fruit of miscegenation, as this interracial backdrop might suggest, than with old-fashioned, five-alarm sex appeal.

*

'Romeo and Juliet: Antebellum New Orleans, 1836'

Where: Boston Court Theatre, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena

When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m.

Ends: Nov. 9

Price: $28

Info: (626) 683-6883

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

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