BWW Reviews: Love is Love in Inner Circle Theatre Company's R+J EQUAL LOVE
Love is love, regardless of who does the loving. That is my belief. If all men (and women) are created equal, what right do we have to keep two people who love each other apart? Who are we to say that a man should not love another man or a woman should not love another woman? It's a simple truth, but at no time in history has that truth been challenged as vehemently as it is now in these modern times. And yet, love is love, regardless of who does the loving.
Inner Circle Theatre Company explores the subject in its debut production, R+J EQUAL LOVE, directed by Casey Kringlen and adapted by Kringlen and Liz Nolan. In two acts, each slightly less than an hour, they tell the love story of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet twice, with two women in the title roles in the first act and two men in the roles in the second. Both acts are self-contained, completing the full arc of the play. The text is sharply truncated, adapted for gender, and includes only two additional characters; the Nurse and the Friar, who appear in both acts.
The remaining characters, such as Lady Capulet, Mercutio and Tybalt, appear as pre-recorded video images with which Romeo and Juliet interact, though it's a device that mostly muddles the energy of the live action. The videos consist of matter-of-fact voiceovers over images of characters who do not actually speak on camera, and if you aren't already familiar with the story, you may have a difficult time figuring out who these characters are. Juliet's parents are self-explanatory but others not so much. Still, the projections are conceptually a smart solution for advancing plot points not being staged live.
The non-traditional theatre space is a white warehouse at the back of The Well, a unique salon and lifestyle-retail company in Downtown Los Angeles that caters to fashion and design. Kringlen directs the cast on two runway platforms in the shape of an X with an additional small playing area at each outer point. The vibe is cool and hip; time period and dress, present day; and accompaniment is a single musician who creates a haunting acoustic soundtrack with an effects-driven edge. Audience members are seated in the triangle sections of the X, in chairs or VIP loveseats close to the action, to create a more inclusive experience.
Kringlen does an excellent job of establishing the world of the play within this trendy, club-oriented backdrop, adapting not only the way the play is constructed, but also capturing the angst-ridden outbursts of a modern generation. The editing can be jarring, however, with scenes butting up against each other that shortcut the passage of time. The most obvious is the immediate transition from Romeo killing Juliet's cousin, Tybalt, to her wailing response upon hearing the news, to Romeo and Juliet's bedroom scene. The emotional arc swings so drastically from one end to the other that it stretches the bounds of reality, at least for me.
Each set of lovers brings something unique to the story. In the women's act, desperation and recklessness fuel their relationship, with Teena Pugliese's Romeo a bawdy party girl full of bold declarations and Liz Fenning's Juliet a sylphlike flirtatious blonde. Their performances are sensual and driven but skew older than the pre-teen/teen characters that are written, though for this adaptation and setting the choice feels appropriate.
What does become an issue, however, is the way they speed through the dialogue and default to yelling to express their frustrations; a combination that makes it difficult to understand them in this warehouse environment. The drama for drama's sake can be overwhelming.
It's much easier to understand the men, partly because their voices are pitched lower and partly because they deliver the text at a more reasonable pace. Their scenes are no less full of passion but they feel more grounded and less built on histrionics. Justin Alastair approaches his turn as Juliet with a coy innocence that contrasts nicely with Carmine DiBenedetto's more intense Romeo. To fully appreciate DiBenedetto's athletic abilities, sit in the first section of chairs you see as you enter the space.
Elena Campbell-Martinez (as an exasperated, put-upon Nurse) and Wesley Mann (as the angriest Friar I've seen) complete the cast as the only other in-the-flesh actors.
Though it has inconsistencies, what is exciting about Inner Circle Theatre's R+J EQUAL LOVE is that it breaks apart the traditional view of Romeo and Juliet as a male/female romance and asks the audience to view it from a new reality; one that includes everyone. It is a Romeo & Juliet story re-imagined for modern times in which love is simply love, as it was always meant to be.