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Extra, Extra...Tragedy in Verona!

Jack Mikesell and Christina Elmore in "Romeo and Juliet" at Shakespeare Center Los Angeles
Jack Mikesell and Christina Elmore in "Romeo and Juliet" at Shakespeare Center Los Angeles
Michael Lamont

"Romeo and Juliet" at Japanese Gardens of VA produced by Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles

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Extra! Extra! Star-crossed lovers play about the kids of feuding families is really two plays: the first an opportunity for dance, merriment and wit, the second stacked up bodies and a whole lotta lamenting.

The smoothly produced and largely engaging production of “Romeo and Juliet” directed by Kenn Saberton for Skaespeare Center of Los Angeles (SCLA) may be trying to be a couple of different things to all comers, hence some rather officious – and probably unnecessary – interplay with the audience. Once Tybalt and Mercutio bite the dust and the curtain comes down on a chillingly good first half closing (thanks in large part to the work of Gregory Linington), Sabberton and co. have no more use for silliness. There’s a tragedy to enact!

Given the sheer volume of “R and J’s” that a regular Shakespeare-goer will see in his lifetime, an intriguing overlay is always welcome and often necessary. In fact, back in 2002, when it was Shakespeare Festival/Los Angeles, this very company with a L.A-tie-in mission did a slick production that found the Montagues and Capulets as scions of battling record labels. That production found, in actor DeSean Terry the most charismatic and talented rendition of the County Paris that anybody is likely to behold.

This time around, we’re in the 1920s and – per press notes – the Ms and Cs could be the publishers of rival newspapers, a la the Hearsts and Chandlers. And, indeed, a few minutes in, a couple of paperboys are hawking their dueling headlines about feuding families. That’s about as far as Sabberton takes the ‘paper backdrop, although Holly Poe Durbin’s costumes and the flapping and frugging Capulet dance - courtesy of choreographer Susan Goldberg and music director Brian Joseph - accomplish some nifty period establishment.

Sabberton, SCLA’s go-to director, has spun real gold out of a “Dream” and an “As You Like It” that he directed for the Aquila Theatre in 2009. (Less effective, although starrier, was the director’s 2012 “As You” exclusively under the SCLA banner. The man casts well and blends efficiency and imagination in some very wonderful ways, often via small casts and creative doubling. The 12-person cast this time is something of an embarrassment of riches, although - the aforementioned party excepted – the production isn’t doing much in the way of crowds. The first street brawl that brings down the Prince’s threatening edict is basically a set-to between Wyatt Fenner’s Benvolio (not keeping the peace this time) and Christopher Michael Rivera’s Tybalt.

Scenic designer Trevor Norton has set the production in the round with the entrance to Friar Laurence's cell and the Capulet balcony on diagonally opposite ends. Characters tend to get ¾ of the way down one of the four long exits and are then pulled back into the scene. And, as previously noted, everybody has easy access to the audience, meaning people can be brought on stage for a bit. And are.

Where Juliet is usually the force of youth (until the play basically forces her to grow up), here it’s Jack Mikesell’s Romeo who is squeaky voiced, bad tempered and seriously petulant. Little wonder that Michael Manuel’s Friar gets lays on a particularly stern and paternal hand when he suspects that Romeo is acting rashly or thinking with his hormones.

Truthfully, the whining gets warring and it takes a while for Mikesell to get us firmly in his corner. Christina Elmore’s Juliet, a more worldly, cerebral and less impassioned Juliet that is typical, has a generous smile and charisma to burn. In Kimberly Scott, Sabberton has cast a Nurse who is sassy, feisty and no ignoramus. Scott can get all effusively goofy over the prospect of Juliet getting married and also hit the right somber tone to deliver the “Two houses both alike in dignity” prologue.

In a league of his own is Linington whose Mercutio suggests Truman Capote. Lanky and a bit effeminate with a cane and oval glasses, Linington works himself into a sexualized frenzy with the Queen Maab speech (nearly raping Romeo) and capering expertly at the Capulet ball. After receiving the fatal stab wound from Tybalt, Linington upends the café table where he had previously been sitting and, amidst the shattered coffee cup, makes a point of trying to pay his final check. Very nice.

Elijah Alexander and Tracey A. Leigh’s Lord and Lady Capulets may be aligned in trying to force Juliet’s marriage to Paris, but the actors are working some under-the-surface tension suggesting that Lady C. may not be as on board as all that. And by the time Elmore is contemplating whether or not to take the Friar’s potion, we are all firmly in her corner.

SCLA regulars will recognize many of these company members from year’s past. Sabberton is building an nice little rep company here. And, once a year, it’s getting ever welcome to welcome him back.

“Romeo and Juliet” continues 8 p.m. Tue.-Sun; through Sunday at Japanese Garden at the Greater Los Angeles VA Healthcare Campus, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles $20-$49. (213) 893-8293, www.shakespearecenter.org