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BWW Reviews: Independent Shakespeare Co. Freshly Spins ROMEO AND JULIET

Independent Shakespeare Co. once again showcases its intuitive ability to reimagine Shakespeare for a modern-day audience with an intimate production of his classic romance, ROMEO AND JULIET. The culturally diverse troupe is adept at creating user-friendly Shakespeare that everyone can understand, whether they are playing to a thousand or more in Griffith Park each summer, or to those that come for an intimate experience in their experimental Atwater Village Studio, or even to an impromptu audience at site-specific locations like The Huntington where they performed Shakespeare in the Garden this past weekend. [See Huntington photos HERE]

In all of these cases, they have a gift for making the text lift off the page within a creative context that is as unique as it is memorable. That picture, of words blowing off the page like a child blows the seeds from a dandelion in summer, is marvelously employed in ROMEO AND JULIET as the familiar tale is freshly spun by director Melissa Chalsma and eight inventive actors.

Though the prologue lays out the events to come, the actors never play the ending before its time, nor do they choose the well-trodden path. Instead, they opt for original, movement-derived visuals (choreography by J'aime Morrison-Petronio) to deepen the storytelling. Passages that get thrown away in less thoughtful hands are colored here in ways that show just how brilliantly crafted Shakespeare's writing is, and also how artfully Chalsma can move actors through a scene and get to the guts of it.

Her tonal shifts are especially focused and effective: the Capulets' party scene full of stylized movement and sound that abruptly stops when Romeo (Nikhil Pai) and Juliet (Erika Soto) lock eyes from across the room; the sudden violence Lord Capulet (André Martin) unleashes when Juliet refuses to marry Paris (Xavier J. Watson); Juliet's bittersweet burial processional; and one of the most beautiful love scenes I've ever witnessed.

This is the second time that Soto and Pai have played young lovers; the first was in ISC's 2013 production of She Stoops To Conquer and after seeing them together I couldn't help but think how perfect they would be in Romeo and Juliet. Happily, they capture the couple's blushing intimacy with tender grace. Soto is resolute and luminously innocent while Pai responds with all the joyous exuberance of a young boy in love at first sight.

In stark contrast is the sexually explicit comedy provided by Martin (doubling as an especially bawdy Mercutio) and Bernadette Sullivan, whose Nurse is a woman of surprising and constantly-changing urges. Both are masters of nuance and offer a revolving door of quirks and delightful choices.

Cat Sowa's boarded set and ethereal lighting maintain a sobering undercurrent throughout, using representative pieces that serve the action - a ladder for the balcony, a table for the tomb, and chairs that stand in for a bell. Her fading light on Romeo and Juliet's faces in the final stage portrait serves as a lasting reminder of what has been lost and is an elegant touch that silently capitalizes on the intimacy of the small space.

What this company does best is create a vision and fully realize it, from beginning to end. They take risks; they include their audience; and the result is an emotional connection between the actors and anyone watching that makes Shakespeare not just a concept but a shared experience.

This is the way to tell a story.

Independent Shakespeare Co. through May 3, 2014
3191 Casitas Avenue #168 (Between Fletcher Drive and Glendale Blvd.) at the Atwater Crossing Arts + Innovation Complex, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Tickets: $20, $15 for students, (818) 710-6306 or Post-show discussions every Friday night.

Pictured: Erika Soto and Nikhil Pai as Romeo and Juliet. Photo credit: Grettel Cortes
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