She's the Troublemaker on the Balcony

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Shakespeare's Juliet is one of theater's great tragic heroines, but she's also a teenager. She's a typical 14-year-old who defies her parents, dates the wrong guy and hangs out on the balcony way past curfew.

The attempt to recognize the willful adolescent in Juliet is what led Sir Peter Hall to cast 23-year-old Lynn Collins in his staging of "Romeo and Juliet," which opened at the Music Center's Ahmanson Theatre Feb. 4.

Both Hall--venerable founder of Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company--and Collins--a 1999 Juilliard graduate and self-described member of the MTV generation--recognized the defiant strength in Juliet, and together made the choice to highlight that quality on the stage.

"I think Juliet tends to be sentimentalized; she's very rebellious, she's very gutsy," Hall said. "I think Shakespeare has an extraordinary perception of the need for women to stand up for themselves in a male-dominated world. It's no accident that some of his greatest parts are women, or sometimes women transforming themselves into men in order to make their way in a man's world.

"She doesn't have any of the kinds of mania and doubts and madness that Romeo has; she does what she has to do," Hall continued. "Shakespeare has a very clear perception that young men are mixed up and very neurotic, and often very indecisive.

"As the father of four daughters and two sons, I know he's correct," he added with a laugh.

Collins, an ebullient Houston native with flowing, dark red hair, agreed wholeheartedly. "She proposed to him," she observed of Juliet during a separate conversation, on a lunchtime rehearsal break at the Music Center. "She makes all the decisions; she makes everything happen."

But, Collins freely admitted, "Sometimes my strength is my weakness." And Hall concurred.

'The first audition I gave her for the part, she was absolutely brilliant, but I said to the casting director after she left: 'I'm not sure this isn't too strong," Hall said. "I said: This isn't a Juliet, this is a Rosalind"--referring to the spunky character in "As You Like It."

"So the casting director said: 'Have her back again tomorrow.' . . . And obviously the casting director had a word with Lynn, who arrived the next day with her hair down, in a soft dress, looking extremely demure. But more to the point, she worked extraordinarily well on the other extreme."

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At this early stage of her career, Collins is still striving to strike the right balance--but it's not hard to tell which side comes more naturally to her as she describes her decision to become an actor.

When she was 4 years old, Collins' father's position with Exxon took the family to Singapore, where they lived for five years. Collins, the youngest of five siblings, attended an American school with a strong arts program, but her decision to commit to acting came after the family returned to Houston. Like Juliet, she made her biggest decision at age 14.

"In my first year of high school, I was student council president, and the teacher in charge of the drama department said: 'Don't waste your time on these high school things,' " she asserts. "So I decided . . . no prom, no homecoming, no anything. I was just going to do it. There is no time to waste."

As it turns out, Collins did waste just enough time to go to the prom--but not much more. Her dedication to her craft got her into the prestigious Juilliard program, where she played Titania in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Hermione in "A Winter's Tale," Duchess in "The Duchess of Malfi" and Varya in "The Cherry Orchard."

She's eager to try other mediums, but chance has kept her onstage. "The universe was like: 'No, you've got things to do, things to learn first, " she said, blending a very Shakespearean take on fate with, like, the word "like." Collins has always had an affinity for Shakespeare. "I've always been drawn to it, always understood it, maybe more quickly than other people did," she mused.

After graduation, Collins landed the role of Ophelia in an offbeat, off-Broadway production of "Hamlet" at Joseph Papp's Public Theater. The production, directed by Andrei Serban, received mixed reviews, and so did Collins.

A critic for the Bergen County Record hailed Collins' Ophelia as "clear-spoken and touching, particularly in the difficult mad scene." But a Daily Variety review, which deemed the production a "travesty," gave an unkind cut to Collins, saying her performance resembled "one of the spoiled, self-dramatizing teens from a Fox drama." In its own wholesale trashing of the production, the New York Times called Collins "rudderless."

Collins does not feel at all "rudderless" under Hall's direction. "He says: 'You cannot breathe except at the end of the line'--I need a director to say, 'Do this, this is what I want,' then I can do it. If I have open rein, I'm going to be all over the place and probably very mediocre," she said.

Though she's spent more time on the classics, Collins said she is dying to do more work in film and television. Since Juilliard, she has landed a guest appearance on "Law & Order: SVU"--as a 14-year-old who murders an older man by shoving her panties in his mouth--and plans to audition for other roles during her months in Los Angeles. She has also visited the set of Lifetime Television's "The Division" with her Romeo, DB Woodside, who has a recurring role in the series. "It's a very different muscle that actors use in front of the camera, and I'm terribly excited to use it," she says.

Like the teenage characters they portray, both Collins and Woodside are rebellious enough to disagree with their distinguished director once in a while. Woodside--a Yale School of Drama graduate whose Hollywood credits also include TV's "Murder One," the NBC miniseries "The Temptations" and the recent Warner Bros. film "Romeo Must Die"--believes that Hall's interpretation of Romeo as weaker than Juliet is a sort of reverse sexism. "I think she is more decisive, but I don't think that necessarily means she has it more together than Romeo," he said. "I just think it means that Romeo is a very passionate, a very feeling man. I think we, specifically men, still view that as some sort of weakness, and that's not it at all."

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And both young actors wish Hall had made more of an effort to highlight his deliberate decision to cast Juliet's rigid family, the Capulets, with white actors, and Romeo's more forgiving Montagues with multiracial performers. "[The choice] was born very much out of the wonderful racial mix of Los Angeles; what I'm trying to say is that you need the energy and the vitality and the passion and the danger of that mixture, and protecting ourselves from that mixture leads to a kind of death," Hall said. "But I don't want to push the point because then you end up making a thesis. You can understand the metaphor if you wish to."

No--make them understand, offered Collins. It's not the first time a director has cast a black and a white actor as the star-cross'd lovers, but "I think to do it now is very, very important," she said. "Racism does not end. The world is mixing when it comes to race and even gender, yet it's still an issue, it just is."

Woodside agreed. "I know Sir Peter's point of view, that people will pick it up on perhaps a subconscious level," he said. "But I think when you make such a strong choice, all of us could have focused more on it. I think it could have been explored more--through dress, through style, through the way the characters talk.

"I really think that perhaps we missed the mark here; I think that we have a chance to say something really, really special--not just about human beings and love, but about race and class."

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"ROMEO AND JULIET," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Dates: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Also: March 8 and March 15, 2 p.m. Ends March 18. Prices: $25-$49. Phone: (213) 628-2772.

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