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Shakespeare in the Dark

Photo by Ed Krieger

The Theater@Boston Court’s inaugural production is a hip-gyrating, feverish Romeo and Juliet unequivocally announcing the arrival of a major new venue for local theater. Subtitled Antebellum New Orleans, 1836, the story has been moved by director Michael Michetti to that city’s French Quarter three decades after the Louisiana Purchase. Michetti presents a worldly port town increasingly polarized between native Catholic Creoles who live in the Quarter and arriviste Anglo-Saxon Protestants who are challenging their commercial and political power. The concept plays nicely into the tragic romance’s Capulet-Montague rivalry, the stakes of which are raised here by the families’ racial makeup, with the Caucasian Romeo (Jason Van Over) wooing Franco-African Juliet (Tessa Thompson).

Part of this show’s joy is watching just how Michetti makes Shakespeare’s Veronese potboiler simmer with a Cajun flavor, how seamlessly the production melds eras and geographies. This is an especially difficult task because he isn’t merely grafting a Renaissance classic onto a time that’s closer and more familiar to our own, but also onto a setting that will be equally as alien to most people. Michetti doesn’t stop there, however. He layers on some Gothic weather in the form of Marie Laveau, New Orleans’ mythic voodoo priestess and apothecary who trance-dances during scene blackouts, before selling Romeo the “mortal drug” that will send him from this world.

In this wrought-iron blend of Shakespeare and Anne Rice, the Capulets, Montagues and their allies inhabit a Mardi Gras season of costume balls, open-air markets, crypts and bayous — all brought to full-dimensional life by a talented cast and design team. Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz, in a strategy reminiscent of early Pacific Theater Ensemble shows like Slaughterhouse on Tanner’s Close and The Beggars’ Opera, employs flying scaffolds that act as building fronts and balconies. This use of vertical space solves many problems of the relatively small stage and allows for an airy and kinetic balcony scene between the lovers. Alex Jaeger’s sumptuous costumes lend a dreamy tone to the intoxicating milieu, while Dan Weingarten’s light plot captures the nocturnal moodiness Michetti insists upon.

The crisp sound design, by Julie Ferrin and Martin Carrillo, also works best when emphasizing the macabre (thunderclaps and echo-chamber effects), although the only real slip is to pipe movielike background music (composed by Paul Hepker) into some of the scenes — an excessive and unfortunate choice.

But this evening is about more than technical sparkle, and it is a larger tribute to the production that our attention and empathy remain, as ever, with the star-crossed young lovers and the outside prejudices that inexorably crush their adolescent devotion.

Jason Van Over plays Romeo as both a smitten boy and reluctant man, while Tessa Thompson’s Juliet is a young adult struggling to be something other than the exquisite pet her parents (David Roberson and Inger Tudor) treat her as. The lovers’ improbable chemistry lifts the story above the interpretations that R&J often falls victim to — ur-teen suicide afterschool special, perhaps, or thinly veiled adult entertainment.

The rest of Michetti’s cast is rock solid, with the critical roles of Romeo’s stalwart friend, Mercutio, and Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, masterfully essayed by J. Todd Adams and Will Owens, respectively. They provide the kind of jostling contrast that can only end in swordplay, with Adams’ bourbon-swilling, ass-pinching Cajun playing off Owens’ icy Prince of Cats. More, certainly, than Romeo and Juliet, they embody the forces that will collide again and again on the American frontier and in this country’s racial psyche. Michetti’s strengths as a director lie in allowing his unspoken background themes to remain unspoken, letting them emerge as a palimpsest under the faded paint of New Orleans storefronts. He is also good at keeping his ensemble moving with slight gestures, both during line deliveries and in moments of relative repose — the result is a show that seems to be a giant organism always in motion.

Comparisons are inevitable with any Shakespeare production, and Michetti’s simply burns the memory of Peter Hall’s R&J that ran at the Ahmanson Theater in 2001 and sweeps away the ashes. That production also featured an interracial Romeo and Juliet (he was black, she was white), but Hall only played the race card, using skin color as a gag that ultimately got lost within an ensemble composed of different ethnicities. Michetti’s staging uses race to draw a clear and uncomfortable divide, with the Capulets, defined in the program notes as “Free People of Color,” facing the business end of white-American expansion (a theme that resonates with post-colonial Los Angeles history). The difference in the two approaches to exploring race onstage is the difference between a conceit and a gimmick, and Michetti wisely trusts his audience sufficiently to provoke them into thinking rather than merely applauding.

 

The Zoo District’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, on the other hand, has neither gimmicks nor conceits. It plays straight and narrow — so much so that the work’s exuberant misogyny becomes palpable — and almost unbearable. Yet director Alec Wild’s willingness to offend makes his production a gutsy and refreshing staging to watch. Since the rise of modern feminism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, theater groups have moved mountains attempting to either prove Shrew’s supposed latent radicalism or to subvert Shakespeare’s intentions to their opposite meaning, because theaters and theatergoers alike refuse to accept that his play sprung from a kind of Stepford-Upon-Avon instead of the pages of Ms.

The evening is a group effort by the Zoo District, the L.A. Conservancy and downtown’s opulent Orpheum Theater, where the action unfolds. This isn’t really an environmental staging in the sense that actors appropriate the architectural properties of their surroundings. In fact, the show can be faulted for not making enough use of this marvelous old building. The cast simply arrives in three locales (downstairs lounge, upstairs lobby and in the theater proper) and works things out with no sets and a minimum of props, although Betty Madden outfits the cast with an array of vaguely anachronistic costumes, and Kevin Cooper and Bruce Teter provide Renaissance music before the acts. The result is a spare production staged in lush digs that relies heavily on its actors. While this proves a mixed bag with the supporting players, leads Ed Cunningham and Tamar Fortgang shoulder the story with manic gusto. Cunningham’s Petruchio is an irredeemable opportunist bent on forcing his marital will on the temperamental Kate — winning an obedient wife and a handsome dowry for his efforts. (Think of a junk-bond trader in need of a shave and a slave.)

Fortgang’s Kate is not the traditional mischievous banshee who is often shown disingenuously accepting the bridal bit, but a truly violent and horrendous force of nature, something unleashed from hell’s basement — for some reason I kept thinking of a bipolar Lillian Hellman. Yet her transformation into a subservient spouse is carried off with complete sincerity, making her announced submission all the more scary to modern ears. This is a raw Shrew untamed by modern sensibilities and served without apology by a company used to taking risks. There are only a few more performances left, and viewers will find the trip downtown rewarding — especially at play’s end, when they are invited to participate in the wedding banquet.

ROMEO AND JULIET: Antebellum New Orleans, 1836 | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Adapted and directed by MICHAEL MICHETTI | At THE THEATER@BOSTON COURT, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; (626) 683-6883 | Through November 9

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

At the ORPHEUM THEATER, 842 S. Broadway, downtown;

(323) 769-5674 | Through October 4