Shakespeare without words

Monique Jonas and Rory Macleod in 'Matthew Bourne's Romeo and Juliet'. Photos by Johan Persson (@perssonphotography)

A pyre for their desire

Matthew Bourne’s “Romeo + Juliet”

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Take note of the title. Shakespeare’s name is nowhere to be found, and that’s because his play, his words, are not here. Instead, as director and choreographer Matthew Bourne has noted, his work is “a Romeo and Juliet-like story.”

Currently gracing the stage of the Ahmanson Theatre, his variation on this classic tale is set within The Verona Institute “in the not-too-distant future.” So forget Italy, and you can forget the Capulets and the Montagues as well. And while there’s a cast list, it’s largely irrelevant because the performers rotate, with mostly three people assigned to each part, and on one evening they may be one character and on another evening someone else. The cast I saw is unlikely to be the one you’ll see. And besides, how are we to guess which dancer is Lavinia, or Martha, or Lennox, or Faith?

The Verona Institute is a white-tiled and chain link-fenced mental ward, correction facility, reform school, its young men and women are inmates either way you slice it.

Hannah Kremer and Bryony Pennington in ‘Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet’. Photos by Johan Persson (@perssonphotography)

In this penitentiary-like setting they are separated by gender and garbed in white, a color that is clinical on the one hand and pure or innocent on the other. There are guards or wardens, the most fearsome and cruel of them being Tybalt (Adam Galbraith on opening night).

The music for this ballet (a mix of classical ballet, modern dance or dance theater, even pantomime) is the same score that Sergei Prokofiev wrote in 1935 (and later revised). Here it’s been adapted by Terry Davies, and the emphasis is on the “Dance of the Knights” piece which is one of the most recognizable in the composer’s repertoire (although everyone knows “Peter and the Wolf,” right?).

The music is often thunderous and ominous, and of course at times graceful, and for this traveling production was pre-recorded, not that we consciously notice.

Despte foreshadowing the familiar, ultimate conclusion (two bodies side-by-side on a bier), Bourne delivers an ending with a sharp twist, although in hindsight it can be seen to make sense. Possibly there’s a bit of the tongue-in-cheek here as well, since unlike the more serene deaths in other versions of “Romeo and Juliet” this one seems to take a page out of “Macbeth,” and there’s more blood than in a Sam Peckinpah movie.

But first we need to talk about the ensemble, the performers. They’re like soundless words dancing across the stage, fluid, precise, with impeccable timing. One movement follows another, each one different and yet astonishingly well-choreographed. It’s rhythmic calligraphy; it’s decorative patterns gliding across a large canvas. One could go on, believe me.

Rory MacLeod in ‘Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet’. Photos by Johan Persson (@perssonphotography)

In this version of the ballet, Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick on opening night) is deposited by his parents in the institute, flicked away by them like something disagreeable, quickly (and humorously) divested of his clothes by some of the other inmates and slipped into his matching hospital gown. It’s all done rather seamlessly, too. Now, we don’t really know why all these young men and women have been committed or incarcerated. Are they merely dysfunctional or have they committed crimes? Perhaps we can view them in the same light as the boys and girls in “Spring Awakening,” where coming-of-age, from adolescence to adulthood, is fraught with landmines rather than goldmines.

However, we can surmise that they are under lock and key in order to be molded or reformed, and there are parallels between youthful dalliance and society’s rules of conformity. Tybalt, the guard, is a one-person representation of the latter. He goes after Mercutio and Benvolio, because he’s not going to see the blossoming of a gay relationship under his watch, but on the other hand he lustfully targets Juliet (Monique Jonas on opening night) and clearly forces his unwanted attentions on her, perhaps knowing he can act with impunity.

It’s at a party, a social mixer for the confined, that Romeo and Juliet lock eyes from across the crowded room. These youths are stifled, closely watched, carefully controlled, but like a rose in the chink of a wall love can take hold and blossom. And despite the odds it does.

Romeo’s parents will eventually come to the institute to reclaim him, but the boy, now wanting to stay, feigns madness or irresponsibility, and this seals his fate. His parents leave without him.

Monique Jonas and Rory Macleod in ‘Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet’. Photos by Johan Persson (@perssonphotography)

And so from now on the focus is on the pas de deux that the two young lovers perform, and then later their reprise which really becomes one dance, a two-person solo, because they and their love are inextricably joined. Meaning they are now RomeoJuliet rather than Romeo and Juliet. It’s this choreographed eroticism, this stylized lovemaking, this flitting and flailing like wounded birds, that’s so riveting, their passion both desperate and heartbreaking. And of course such passion needs a comparable finale, an exclamation point, which is delivered with a thrust by Bourne and his dancers.

There is really nothing to quibble about. Matthew Bourne has brought production after production to Los Angeles, and although they are different, ranging from his haunting all-male rendition of “Swan Lake” to the lavishness of “The Red Shoes,” each has been proclaimed as masterful, if not indeed a masterpiece. This line of successful works continues.

Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet is on stage through Feb. 25 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave, downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. A New Adventures Production, the set and costumes were designed by Lez Brotherston, the lighting designer is Paule Constable, and Paul Groothius is the sound designer. Performances, Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., Sunday at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. There’s a Thursday Matinee on Feb. 22 at 2 p.m. The Wednesday, Feb. 14 show is (no surprise) sold out. Also, there’s no performance on Sunday evening, February 25. Tickets, $35 to $155, at the box office, by calling (213) 628-2772, or online at CenterTheatreGroup.org. ER

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