Professional theatre artists are accustomed to launching into a performance in a blackout, hushed murmurs of an attentive audience and whatever sound scape paints the world they are about to enter.
When performing to houses full of local elementary, middle and high school students who have only been trained as movie audience members, theatre companies are in for a surprise.
When the blackout falls over the stage at the top of Romeo & Juliet, the student audience erupts in hoots and hollers, as if Edward Cullen flew into the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles' (formerly Shakespeare Festival/LA) inaugural indoor production. The roar often overpowers the first lines of Shakespeare's famous tragedy, "Two households, both alike in dignity..." But as soon as those words are spoken, the students respond to more than just the dark.
What sets this production apart from others, including the Baz Luhrmann film that has everyone under the age of 30 believing the lovers always kiss underwater, is that it is set in 1930s Boyle Heights. Also, the cast reflects the diversity of the East LA neighborhood of that era. The predominantly Latino student audiences have the opportunity to see a Cuban Romeo, an African-American Juliet, a British Nurse, and supporting cast that spans the ethnic rainbow.
A post-show discussion facilitated by Kimiko Broder allows the students to voice what they learned, enjoyed and observed about the oft-studied play. Common responses are that this production finds humor, which is often absent from tragedy, and that the fatal ending could have been prevented if communication between the lovers and their parents had been better. Seeing the play in an era close to our own and performed by actors who reflect today's America brings Shakespeare to a clear, poignant and entertaining place.
Romeo & Juliet's 8pm performances on April 17 and 24 are open to the public. For tickets, visit www.brownpapertickets.com/event/95721. Shakespeare Center is located at 1238 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90026.