Never was there a story of more wow than Shana Cooper's fresh spin on "Romeo & Juliet."
While this startling and inventive twist on Shakespeare's most beloved tragedy may rile some purists, there's no way to resist the sheer exuberance of the production, which runs through July 28 at Cal Shakes. Fast and furious, this pulse-pounding tale of star-crossed lovers misses some of the verse, but it certainly captures the head-spinning, heart-melting rush of first romance.
Cooper has cut quite a bit of the text -- the play is just two hours and 20 minutes long. Bard buffs definitely will pine for some of the lost verse. And there is certain amount of messiness to the characterizations because so few actors (seven) play all of the roles here. If you don't know the play by heart, you may not realize that Nick Gabriel has morphed from Tybalt to Paris. Arwen Anderson, by contrast, deftly leaps from the warm Benvolio to the chilly Lady Capulet, but not all the cast revels in the same level of nuance.
Still, Cooper, who directed "The Taming of the Shrew" in 2011, is no fool. She illuminates the poetry with an aching sense of clarity. Every word counts in this raw and immediate staging.
She has also a secret weapon at her disposal -- a luminous Rebekah Brockman as the ill-fated heroine, Juliet.
Brockman, who stole many a scene as the brilliant Thomasina in "Arcadia" at ACT, parses the verse with great sensitivity but never loses the heat of moment. She radiates youthful impetuousness with a simplicity that's disarming. She also nails Juliet's fierce wit, which she must often cloak in primness, and her precociousness makes her lot all the more tragic.
Destined to be married off at 14, she refuses to submit to convention and falls for Romeo (Dan Clegg), the last boy her family will accept. Flowers strewn through her hair, this Juliet exerts the pull of gravity of her beau and soon both are spinning into doom as the powers that be plot against them.
The director invites the audience to engage with the piece from start to finish. We fill in the gaps when looking at Daniel Ostling's sparse set of a bed, a staircase and a trapdoor and the natural splendor of the Orinda hillside conjures up the allure of a Verona summer. Change is everywhere here. The stairs turn into a balcony. A sheet of plastic turns into a shroud. The actors transform from part to part. Nothing lasts for long in this fluid universe.
Flaming torches streaking the night sky, a dance-club soundtrack (designed by Paul James Prendergast) and a glowing fire pit add to the production's sense of life as a candle that burns brightest just before it's snuffed out.
Dan Hiatt and Domenique Lozano etch all the adult figures in this world from Friar Lawrence and Lord Capulet to Juliet's wily nurse and the Prince. These veteran actors buttress the production with carefully calibrated performances that dig beneath the surface of the text.
While some of the backstory of the feud between the Montague and Capulet families is lost here, the emotional intimacy of the play is striking. The bond between Juliet and her nurse (a potent turn by Lozano) has rarely been so tender. Mercutio (a jaunty Joseph J. Parks) plummets from brash prankster to death scene in a flash. The love story careens from the giddiness of the balcony scene to the ecstasy of despair.
The tomb scene, framed by flickering shadows, is among the eeriest in recent memory and the gloom of the closing scene generates a palpable shiver.
The propulsion of the piece is its genius. Erika Chong Shuch's sprightly choreography, Dave Maier's explosive fight scenes and Lap Chi Chu's haunting lighting capture the headlong freefall of coming of age in a world gone mad.
'ROMEO & jULIET'
By William Shakespeare
Through: July 28
100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $20-$72. 510-548-9666. www.calshakes.org.