- Greggory Moore
I was not looking forward to this play. I don’t love Shakespeare as I once did, and I never thought much of Romeo and Juliet. Yeah, he’s a genius, and admittedly R&J is a great cautionary tale about the dangers of being swept away by immature passions. But three problems: 1) most productions of R&J totally miss or ignore that angle, so we never see its cleverest side; 2) most Shakespeare is conceived/performed poorly, period; and 3) I’ve read/seen R&J way more than I needed to for one lifetime.
But there I was, in the lush confines of the Elysium Conservatory Theatre lobby, getting right back on that horse. Shortly after 8 p.m. the audience was marched down to a cavernous, dimly lit stage space where two kids that obviously had to be our star-crossed lovers (no spoiler alert needed for R&J, right?) on a wheeled bier, locked in an eternal embrace. Cue the prologue: “Two households, both alike in dignity, / In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,” blah blah blah.
But a funny thing happened on the way to arriving at the familiar, predetermined destination: I got there by a route I’d never traveled, full of moody music and manic movement, a journey where Shakespeare’s text is merely a means to a visceral end.
This last point will not endear director Aaron Ganz to Shakespeare purists. Huge chunks of text are tossed out, while others are transported across state lines. Some plot strands are only partially cut away, leaving confusing loose ends. (Character doubling and conflation is a downright mess in the play’s final scenes.) The acoustics—fantastic for certain things—swallow up entire passages. Long stretches pass with no Shakespeare at all, the Bard held in abeyance while Top 40 hits of the 2000s, mood music (a lot of Act 1 sounds scored by Sigur Røs lite), and a cappella takes of Bette Midler’s “The Rose” (fairly gorgeous takes, it should be said) fill the time.
Be a little flexible, though, and you won’t really mind. For a Shakespeare play, R&J would be pretty easy to follow even if you didn’t already know what was going on. But what Ganz really wants to get across is feeling—the characters’ lust and frustration, their anger and confusion, their dread and hope. Music reverberates and echoes, with singers beside and behind you. Lighting (particularly effective after intermission) modulates both subtly and dramatically, illuminating you where you sit and throwing misty blue shadows against the distant back wall, volcanic red up the sides. Action happens a great distance and within a couple of feet of your face (not even counting the point at the party where you’re on the dance floor with everyone else). Bodies run and contort and thrash about.
Those bodies—the cast—are the main vessels of feeling. Never have I seen a Shakespeare production where pure movement is more essential. Elysium ain’t Cirque de Soleil, but they’re not trying to be. What they do is fairly simple and not always graceful, but always, always, always energetic. At their disposal they’ve got god knows how much square footage to play with, and the play with all of it, vigorously, both physically and emotionally. There’s a lot of running, a lot of yelling and crying out, a lot of contact, a lot of style. The Tybalt-Mercutio duel starts with a wonderful tableau and contains some of the best stage combat I’ve seen. Somewhere there’s a slap that was either the best stage slap in the history of drama or simply a real-life, capillary-breaking smack in the face. Somewhere else there’s a punching of the cement floor that I can only hope didn’t result in a broken hand. This cast ain’t fucking around. This is live live theatre, friends.
Romeo and Juliet is the inaugural Elysium production in the building that until late 2012 was San Pedro’s landmark Ante’s Restaurant (hence the slightly confusing street sign out front saying you’re on Ante Perkov Way). I get the sense that Elysium is just getting their feet under them. But they’re hitting the ground running. This is not the best production you’ll see from Elysium, but it’s a take on Shakespeare you haven’t seen, and it’s a show that you’ll feel.
ROMEO AND JULIET ELYSIUM CONSERVATORY THEATRE • 729 S PALOS VERDES ST • SAN PEDRO 90731 • 424.535.7333 • FEARLESSARTISTS.ORG • FRI-SAT 8PM; SUN 7PM • $10–$25 • THROUGH APRIL 30
(Photo credit: Louella Boquiren)