Large dumpsters, the kind often seen at construction sites or behind restaurants, play a prominent role in Dámaso Rodriguez's kinetic modern-dress production of William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."
They help an actor reach a balcony. They provide a handy perch for company members to take in the drama when not directly involved in a scene. And they are rhythmically banged on for percussive emphasis when fighting periodically erupts.
The graffiti-filled backdrop of Angela Balogh Calin's set, the sight of Will Bradley's Romeo sulking in a hoodie and sunglasses over Rosaline's rejection of him and the rave-like atmosphere of the Capulet party scene made me wonder if Rodriguez had recently watched Baz Luhrmann's colorful film update starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.
But this new production, which opened Saturday at A Noise Within in Pasadena, is more faithful to the original. Respect for the language prevails over visual insouciance.
The contemporizing thrust is purely theatrical. Brecht hovers in the background: There's no concealing that this is performance. Yet the fiction is played for real. Rodriguez wants his actors to feel the action in their sinews.
Rafael Goldstein's Mercutio is so supercharged that his tousled hair often seems to be reciting his lines along with him. The rubbery expressions and breathless delivery of his genial frat boy sometimes make it hard to follow the naughty puns he exchanges with Romeo, but Mercutio is reincarnated for 21st century Southern California.
Bradley's brooding intensity, so memorable in "Stupid ... Bird" at the Theatre @ Boston Court, is redeployed for a starker-than-usual Romeo. Thoughts of mortality darken the erotic daydreams of this Echo Park Rimbaud. When Bradley's Romeo pauses before entering the Capulet soiree (where he'll meet Juliet) to confess to his buddies that he fears this night might bring "untimely death," his pallor confirms his premonition.
Donnla Hughes' Juliet, poised in manner and dignified in speech, is a revealing choice for Romeo's volatile affections. More than her innocent beauty, it is the nobility of her character that ensnares him — and by extension us. In falling in love with this Juliet, Romeo matures from callow, self-dramatizing love fool into a pensive young man who knows that time and fate are not on his side.
Some of the casting maneuvers seem a bit random. It wasn't clear to me why June Carryl was playing both the nurse and the Prince, though fortunately this vivid actress found the right comic earthiness for the former and a welcome note of exasperated authority for the latter. If there were cross-gender messages in Charlotte Gulezian's Benvolio, they escaped me — she played Romeo's sweet cousin in the standard way of a guy ready to fight when necessary but always holding out peace.
Robertson Dean's Friar Laurence, as well intentioned as he is bumbling, clucks memorably in holy fluster. Alan Blumenfeld's Capulet, loving father to Juliet one minute, irascible domestic tyrant the next, shows that these are sides of the same patriarchal coin.
"Romeo and Juliet" has all the makings of a comedy until its corpse-strewn fifth act in the Capulet tomb. The tonal shifts require both physical and emotional agility. Complicating matters further in performance, the play's figures have become such familiar archetypes of romantic tragedy that it is difficult to reanimate their pathos.
Rodríguez's production loses some of its precision in the tricky final stretch. Diction gets muddied and the blocking seems sloppy in places. Shakespeare, recognizing that his tale is racing for catastrophe, simplifies the poetic imagery. The artificiality that marked Romeo's paeans to Rosaline is replaced with sparer, more heartfelt expression. Romeo registers what he's saying.
Bradley still seems to be negotiating the push of the plot with the pull of the poetry. As the production settles in, Romeo's sorrow will no doubt deepen and the communal swirl will clarify rather than obscure the shared grief of two warring families.
The couple's embrace in death may not yet set off a cascade of cathartic tears, but this electric production makes for a worthy encounter with this forever-young classic.
'Romeo and Juliet'
Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena
When: Contact theater for schedule. Ends May 8
Tickets: Start at $48
Info: (626) 356-3100, www.ANoiseWithin.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes