On Theater: 'Romeo and Juliet' given modern-day revival

Vanguard University offers a dynamic, passionate and visceral production of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet."

Director Susan Berkompas has set her concept of this classic tragedy in the here and now. Her vision of a "modern day, industrial Verona" features tattooed gang bangers in both the Capulet and Montague camps.

The seething antagonism between the two families (the reason for the feud is not provided) pervades the Vanguard production and often overshadows the forbidden romance at the play's core. But once the two title characters are joined, their tragic attraction dominates, as it should.

Too often, directors cast older, more seasoned actors in the parts written for a boy and girl in their mid-teens. Royen Kent and Rosalyn Brickman may be college students, but both are physically convincing in the title roles.

Kent excels in the guise of a lovesick youth, acting against all constraints from both his elders and peers. His passion for Brickman, and hers for him, are splendidly interpreted, although the script itself becomes a bit melodramatic toward the climax.

Brickman's budding lass, with her intense defiance of her parents' wishes, is solidly and realistically presented. Her abhorrence of arranged marriage, common in Shakespeare's time, strikes a welcome discord in this futuristic version and her blind devotion to her young lover is strikingly effected.

Nearly as powerful as Romeo's part is that of Mercutio, the hero's garrulous ally who waxes eloquently and clashes superbly with the snarling Tybalt (a powerful Preston Butler III) in the show's major conflict. Why Butler doubles in a throwaway role as the apothecary late in the show is anyone's guess.

Mark Bowen, the only seasoned adult in the cast, strikes a fine balance as Friar Lawrence, the clergyman who assists the lovers. Katelyn Spurgin also impresses as Juliet's strongly opinionated nurse and confidante.

Other supporting roles are either overplayed (Brandon Arias as Juliet's fuming father) or underdone (Dain Ouradnik as Juliet's would-be husband). Karah Macie Gravatt strikes the proper balance as Juliet's mother, as does Zach Simons as Romeo's pal, Benvolio.

Director Berkompas has assigned her son, Connor, the task of designing a multi-use setting, marked by huge moving screens and wheeled ladders. Executed by technical director Paul Eggington, the concept works splendidly.

Lia M. Hansen's pop cultural costumes and Jonathan Byram's overarching sound design also lend strong credence to this full-bodied production. The impressive stage combat, orchestrated by Deborah Marley, further enriches the atmosphere.

Few tragedies, even those from Shakespeare, stir both the heart and sinew with the impact of "Romeo and Juliet." Vanguard University has mounted a rich and vital revival of this most virulent story.


Feminist, scientific attitudes embellish 'Silent Sky'

Were someone to comment that "Silent Sky" may be over the heads of most South Coast Repertory audience members, it would be both an accurate figurative and literal observation.

Lauren Gunderson's chronicle, focusing on the life and career of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, whose discovery in the early 1900s revolutionized her field, is indeed overly scientific in its presentation, dramatizing the "period-luminosity relation of Cepheid variables." It also attempts, without much success, to stir the plot with a little romantic drama.

In director Anne Justine D'Zmura's world premiere production, personal emotions are largely eclipsed both by science and feminist attitudes of the period (one of Leavitt's colleagues sports a banner reading "Votes for Women"). What genuine theater remains is an awkward romance between the astronomer and her superior that begins with his come-on line, "I think you may be quite marvelous."

Nevertheless, SCR's handsomely mounted project touches the intellect if not the soul. With the universe as a sprawling backdrop (in John Iacovelli's scenic design), "Silent Sky" becomes a visual achievement.

Leavitt began work in 1893 at the Harvard College Observatory in a menial capacity as a "computer," assigned to count images on photographic plates. Study of the plates led Leavitt to propose a groundbreaking theory, developed while she toiled as a $10.50-a-week assistant, that was the basis for the pivotal work of famed astronomer Edwin Hubble (after whom they named a telescope).

As solidly portrayed by Monette Magrath, Henrietta vacillates between her astronomical mission at Harvard and her rural Massachusetts home base where her sister (Erin Cottrell) has established a family and pursues music. Magrath's star-gazing Henrietta is drawn to fellow scientist Peter Shaw (Nick Toren), but both are woefully lacking in romantic experience.

Spicing up the plot are Henrietta's associates, the grim suffragette (Colette Kilroy) and the personable Scottish lady (Amelia White) who came to her post after being hired by the observatory chief as a housekeeper.

Toren's ramrod-stiff pursuit of Magrath constitutes what little personal drama exists in Gunderson's account. It's an engaging subplot to the play's barely accessible theme.

Some plays (such as David Auburn's "Proof") blend theater and science with superlative results. "Silent Sky" isn't quite in that league.


'Chocolate Factory' enriched by female 'Charlie'

In the adjacent Nicholas Stage theater, South Coast Rep's teen-aged performers, the Junior Players, are staging an enjoyable production of Roald Dahl's classic fantasy "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

Director Mercy Vasquez has fashioned a colorful, attractive version of this popular show, which spawned two movies, with Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp, as the candy factory mogul who invites five youngsters to tour his operation, most of whom are bratty, spoiled, grasping ingrates.

In the SCR show, Christopher Huntley is a bright, entertaining Willy Wonka, the mysterious candy maker whose "Oompa Loompas" keep things running smoothly. And their number grows throughout the show as four of the unlikable kids meet dire fates.

The brats steal the show, of course — Lindsey Troupe, Gracie O'Brien, Brooke Boukather and Tristan Steward thoroughly chew the scenery before becoming part of it. O'Brien, in particular, is a memorable little harridan.

"Charlie," in this case, is a Charlene or a Charlotte. Jamie Ostmann takes the title role of the poverty-stricken kid who prospers at the others' expense. Guy McEleney is physically believable as her elderly grandfather.

Laura Murphy's choreography — particularly with the silver-clad Oompa Loompas — is a highlight of the show, while the Chocolate Muses (Rachel Charny, Shireen Kulkarni and Karoline Ribak) lend a cute atmospheric touch. John Gaddis and Sam Lerner combine for some impressive technical effects.

This is a terrific show for the younger set. My 4-year-old granddaughter was transfixed and wanted to see it again. Yours probably will too.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Romeo and Juliet"

Where: Vanguard University Lyceum Theater, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Closing performances at 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday.

COST: $17 and $14

Call: (714) 668-6145

If You Go

What: "Silent Sky"

Where: South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays until May 1

Cost: $28 to $66

Call: (714) 708-5555

If You Go

What: "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"

Who: South Coast Repertory Junior Players

Where: SCR's Nicholas Studio, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Closing performances at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday

Cost: $9

Call: (714) 708-5555

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