‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Japanese Garden doesn’t jam

The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles tries to bring “Romeo and Juliet” into the Jazz Age, but Kenn Sabberton’s production at The Japanese Garden on the grounds of the VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Center Campus doesn’t quite jam, despite some good performances.


First, you can go early to picnic. When you order your tickets you can also order a box lunch from Cafe Brentwood. Otherwise, you can bring your own picnic and eat on the wooden picnic tables. If those are taken up, you might also want to bring a blanket to sit on. The garden has definitely seen better days. There’s a murky pool of water, a red bridge and a very small sand garden that you might miss entirely on the way in.

There are beverages you can purchase.

The temporary stage is built up in a clear area of the garden. You’ll be sitting on padded chairs and this is theater in the round and under the stars. You might get chilly so bring a jacket or sweater.

This color-blind multi-ethnic casting which doesn’t always make sense. The first conceit is that the rivaling families are newspaper moguls. We have the Los Angeles Times (Capulets) versus the Los Angeles Herald. (Montagues) The second conceit is that we are in the 1920s, but jazz and drinking are in the open. Instead of a Prince we have a Princess (Cristina Frias), who warns the Montagues and the Capulets not the war on the streets.

You might expect gangsters running bootleg booze to have guns like Al Capone in Chicago, but since these families are both represented as upper echelon, the whole sword play doesn’t make much sense. A while back an Ahmanson production of this play directed by Sir Peter Hall made the feud racial–black against white. Baz Luhrmann in a 1996 movie had the Latinos against the Anglos. Totally ignoring race is one way to go, but ignoring prohibition and race  makes the inclusion of weapons awkward.

The 1920s brought the music of the black Americans up into the general population. Listening to music produced by black Americans was cool. Watching black Americans dance was cool. Taking on their dancing was also cool for the upper classes. Yet it wasn’t so long after the sinking of the Titanic when the lower decks were for the lower classes.

If the socio-political themes of the time aren’t well integrated into the play, neither is the newspaper, muck-racking, out-scoop your rival race between the Times and the Herald. We know, of course, that the LA Times won that rivalry, but this conceit is dismissed after the beginning of the play.

At the center of the play is Juliet. Played by Christina Elmore (TNT’s “The Last Ship”) with passion, Juliet isn’t a physically fragile young girl. Elmore is a sturdy woman. She’s as tall as Obie and NAACP award-winning Tracey A. Leigh who plays her mother. Mother and daughter don’t seem to be so far apart in age either. Of course, Juliet’s real mother figure is the nurse played by the vibrant Tony Award-nominee Kimberly Scott.

As Romeo, Jack Mikesell does give us an infatuated youth, but I didn’t feel chemistry between Mikesell and Elmore. The scene where they first catch each other’s eyes is rather clumsy and obvious.

In all, Sabberton’s production has a lot of good ideas, but they don’t come together smoothly to create a cohesive whole.

“Romeo and Juliet” continues at The Japanese Garden on the VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Center Campus until July 26, 2014.

Prices:                      $20, $49, plus premium $70 (includes box dinner)

                                   Tickets for active military, veterans, and their guests are free of charge

                                   (while supplies last; reservations required).

Please call SCLA at 213-481-2273.

Tickets:                     call 213.893.8293 or visit www.shakespearecenter.org

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