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Theater: CityShakes presents ‘Romeo & Juliet’

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Colin Martin begins the City Shakespeare Company’s production of “Romeo & Juliet” as Mercutio. SCREAMfmLondon

It was a hot summer night in Santa Monica, and the audience was pressed closely together on rows of wooden benches lining the either side of the stage — pressed even tighter when Romeo scooted us over in his efforts to hide from Mercutio and Benvolio at the Capulets’ ball.

Last week, the City Shakespeare Company concluded its latest run of “Romeo & Juliet” with a semi-modern interpretation of the classic story.

“Romeo & Juliet” is always, at first, the ultimate tale of rebellious teenage love against all odds. Until you get older and begin to recognize it as a valid example of why 13-year-olds should not be making important life decisions.

The CityShakes interpretation did an impressive job illustrating both perspectives of the story. David Hartstone and Megan Ruble are expressive and passionate as Romeo and Juliet; both actors had moments onstage where their true innocence (and irrationality, really) shone through. Likewise, the supporting cast (Gilbert Martinez as Father Laurence and Mallory Wedding as the Nurse in particular) represented the outsider’s “adult” perspective on the romance that ends in tragedy.

Wedding as the Nurse was perhaps the most entertaining part of the play. Her interpretation was unique and gave unusual life to a character I would have otherwise considered unremarkable. Wedding’s stylistic choices were really amusing as the Nurse toed the line between wise and ridiculous, serving as a big sister-like figure to Juliet and a solid contrast to Juliet’s youthfulness and naiveté. Wedding would make a great Polonius — just sayin’.

Although the playbill states that CityShakes’ “Romeo & Juliet” takes place “now” in “Anytown, USA,” there was only a little bit of evidence to support this. The biggest anachronism was Paris (Daniel Landberg), Juliet’s would-be betrothed, who still carried around a large sword strapped to his waist. As Paris is clearly the most oblivious character in the play, this only further emphasized how out-of-touch he is from his surroundings. So, it worked, whether or not it was actually intentional.

Immediately following the performance, the cast and crew held a Q&A segment for the benefit of the high school students in the audience, which was a nice touch. CityShakes performances are especially great for students, parents and teachers because they are more traditional adaptations with minimal sets and costumes, but the actors express clear respect for the original text, which makes the performances clear and accessible.

The size of the theater (such that I probably could have reached out and touched Romeo during his dramatic final scene in the crypt) as well as the size of the cast (only seven actors, most of whom played two or more roles) make the experience feel all the more like community outreach. And the City Shakespeare Company really is a great asset to the community — it continues to offer simple, relatable and charming adaptations of Shakespeare’s classics. I already look forward to the next one.

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Theater: CityShakes presents ‘The Merchant of Venice’

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Underneath twinkling rope lights in the exposed-brick back room of a storefront in Santa Monica, the City Shakespeare Company brings to life “The Merchant of Venice” with a strong cast, effective stylistic choices and a beautiful performance space.

The company makes the most of a minimal set and places the audience on a few rows of wooden benches right in the middle of the action.

If it’s been a while since high school English class, the plotline of “The Merchant of Venice” essentially follows Antonio (Todd Elliott), who takes out a loan from Shylock (Peter Nikkos) in order to fund his friend Bassanio’s (David Hartstone) quest to woo Portia (Allison Volk), the heiress, under the condition that if the loan is not repaid, Shylock is entitled to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Although typically considered a comedy, “The Merchant of Venice” throws in some intense dramatic scenes (Shylock’s attempting to forcibly remove the aforementioned flesh from Antonio’s chest in open court comes to mind, for instance). These moments are especially powerful in the intimate space: the audience members in the front row are directly confronted by Nikkos as Shylock during the famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue, among others.

But, really, this production’s excellence lies in its brilliantly-executed comedy. The supporting cast is as strong as the leads, and the jokes land effortlessly.

Daniel Landberg and Gilbert Martinez are particularly fantastic in their comedic ensemble roles. These two are instrumental in making CityShakes’ production of “The Merchant of Venice” as accessible and laugh-out-loud funny as it is. Additionally, Landberg scores the play with acoustic guitar-playing throughout and interjects a few original songs during key scene changes that help advance the storyline.

CityShakes’ production is so well done, the only real flaws come from the source material itself. “The Merchant of Venice” isn’t often performed in contemporary theaters — most likely because of the hard-to-ignore, heavy-handed anti-Semitism. Shylock is clearly portrayed as a villainous, vengeful Jew in contrast to the righteous and merciful Christian characters. During the play’s denouement, they tell Shylock that they’re going to force him to convert to Christianity, and that’s the happy ending to his story.

Considering these problems exist within Shakespeare’s text, the theater company does a fair job presenting the story and emphasizing mercy and forgiveness as the overall themes of this production. Although, even the play’s portrayal of mercy is questionable, since Shylock is unflinchingly hell-bent on revenge and has to be lectured about compassion by Portia. Director Brooke Bishop addresses this issue in the playbill, writing, “The Merchant of Venice is often thought to have been written from a place of hate — we invite you to watch out production from a place of love, and see what you discover.”

Still, the City Shakespeare Company’s “Merchant of Venice” is an outstanding artistic production. It is incredibly charming in its moments of comedy and romance, and thought-provoking in its most dramatic scenes. It is, altogether, definitely worth watching.

‘The Merchant of Venice’

1454 Lincoln Blvd.

8 p.m. Thursday – Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday

Tickets are $20, or pay-what-you-can at the door on Thursday

For more information, visit www.cityshakes.org.