The problem with Romeo and Juliet is that we never get to see how it really went down, the fallout from all that sexy forbidden union of opposing clans. Had they lived even five years beyond their wedding day, would Juliet be laughing mockingly or just cringing at Romeo's hammy romantic come-ons that so bewitched her at the outset, when they were just teenagers? Or would Romeo now be trying out his well-practiced art on somebody younger and leaner than Juliet, now with, say, two kids in tow?
Would they be having arguments over which in-laws to invite for dinner? R&J has the warring Montague and Capulet clans unite in honor of their childrens' deaths, but what if the young'uns had lived?
What if Romeo made it to 60, and he was still a struggling poet but now with a weak bladder, rotting gums, a pot belly and hemorrhoids. How romantically would she think of him then, and his verse?
Playwright Susan Rubin uses Romeo and Juliet as the starting point for her absorbing, enigmatic play, eve2, which really centers on an earlier, no less tragic couple from the Book of Genesis.
In her remake of a legend so familiar it need not be mentioned by name, Adam (Hunter Seagroves) works in a contemporary hospital but aspires to be an actor. For this reason he's rehearsing the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet with his co-worker, Eve (Rebecca Rivera).
In the middle of their rehearsal in one of the hospital's quiet corridors, the power goes out and we hear over the sound system an evacuation order for all staff to leave the building.
Eve being Eve, and Adam being kind of bossy yet the kind of guy who ultimately goes along with her — that debacle over the apple was her doing, after all — they choose to ignore the official order and subsequently find themselves in a netherworld where "time and space collide."
This means that they're everywhere, and nowhere. Anything can happen. And quite a bit does.
For instance, in the smoky confines of the lightless ward, one slender youth, Mo (Nicholas Cutro), emerges nattily dressed from a body bag and eventually winds up looking even more snazzy in a leather jacket.
This reconfigured Moses sounds eager to make a getaway with Eve. This annoys Adam, who, flashlight in hand, urges Mo back to the psych ward from which he's alleged to have escaped.
Mo may be crazy but he's no fool. It was he who recited commandments that have been humanity's curse, Eve points out.
Mo argues that good can't exist without evil, love without hatred, kindness without cruelty. A propensity for people to behave badly is the reason for the rules he ordained to keep order. This is well said, though dubious coming from somebody who, before this play is concluded, will emerge with blood on his hands.
Eve's counter-argument sums up the play's most salient dispute: that there need be no impediment for people to base their actions on the principles of goodness and divine love. She holds Christ's view, and Gandhi's. And for this view, she took the fall, Rubin implies.
Emerging from a different body bag is an attractive woman named Tina, also a former psych-ward patient. She's fond of hallucinogenic meds, perhaps because she possesses a psychotic dread of human atrocities that she feels all around her.
And so the play lashes around trying to fathom why the world has always been so awful. It arrives at enigmas and paradoxes, which is among its strengths. Can you imagine a play actually trying to answer the mysteries of existence with a remedy?
The play is like an episode of The X-Files but without dramaturgical rules. There's some kind of killing game going on outside, or inside, that the characters seek to escape. There are voices suggesting that Eve, in particular, is being watched, that she's being ensnared in a dragnet. But is the hell beyond the hospital walls worse than the hell in which they're trapped? Are they even trapped?
Adam talks a good game about making a dash for it, and it would seem he could if he wanted to, but that would mean rescinding his devotion to Eve, since she's more interested in snooping around in file cabinets and grabbing patients' records by the fistful. But to what purpose? Adam sums it up best: "We committed a couple of major criminal acts, but we still don't know anything."
This is all quite enjoyable, but the story's cat-and-mouse excitement derives more from curiosity as to what's going on than from the visceral thrill of suspense — despite actors bolting across the stage with glints of terror on their faces. It's as though Rubin and director Mark Bringleson are trying to stitch together a mystery-thriller from Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit with the romanticism of Romeo and Juliet.
As an example of the production's romantic thread, Adam might have bolted for the nearest exit had he not just been rehearsing Romeo and somehow retained in his otherwise impenetrable noggen that sonnet penned by the same Bard, "Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds."
Such sentiments are the glue that keeps couples together, through doom and worse. Such sentiments are what keep Rubin's latter-day Adam in the hospital and in her play, which is ultimately idealistic despite its macabre trappings.
The play knows that the world is a terrible place, and doesn't quite know what to do about it. It aches for the love between Romeo and Juliet to endure, to actually mean something in our world. Its intelligence is striking, its symbolism provocative, and its dramaturgy murky.
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Director Mark Bringelson delivers an atmospheric and compelling production on a stage with a smoky subterranean cave — the morgue — and stairwells from the stage's main purgatorial level leading to Heaven above.
Rivera's Eve has a child-woman power, against which Seagrove's Adam comes off as a bit of a blowhard. Some of this may well be in the lines — his instant jealousy of Mo, for example. In one scene, Mo transports Eve to the Egyptian paradise where Anthony met Cleopatra.
This is a play that strives to hold the whole world in its hands. Therein lies its virtue, and its beauty.
EVE2 | By Susan Rubin | Co-presented by Indecent Exposure Theatre Company and Bootleg Theater, 2200 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles | Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Sept. 8 | (213) 389-3856 | bootlegtheater.org