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Transcendent tragedy: Matthew Bourne’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’ at the Ahmanson

Monique Jonas in Matthew Bourne's "Romeo + Juliet) (Photo by Johan Persson)

Making its North American debut at the Ahmanson Theatre through Feb. 25, choreographer Matthew Bourne’s “Romeo + Juliet” resets Shakespeare’s well-known tragedy from two warring families in Italy to the Verona Institute, a correctional facility for troubled teens.


Through precise yet fluid physical expression, an ensemble of dancers retell the story in a new way—one in which love is a matter of life and death.


Not unlike Les Ballet de Monte Carlo’s “Roméo et Juliette” that performed at Segerstrom Center for the Arts two years ago, “Romeo + Juliet” is related entirely through expressive dance.

Rory MacLeod in Matthew Bourne's "Romeo + Juliet" (Photo by Johan Persson)

Though the cast is trained in ballet, you wouldn’t think this is ballet dancing. Bourne’s creative choreography—precisely fitted Sergei Prokofiev’s classic score—is rhythmic, modern, unexpected, extremely emotive and yes, fun.


The Verona Institute is a brightly lit arena (set and costume design by Lez Brotherston), with white-tiled walls girded by locking doors and gates, a surrounding balcony and passageways separating “boys” from “girls.” The rigidity of that gender distinction is echoed in the regimented pacing, pill distribution and bedtime inspection of the young inhabitants by guards and medical staff.


Dressed uniformly in white jeans and tops, the teens rebel in small ways, such as licking their medicine cards before handing them to the dispensers, and through small acts of gender-fluid physical affection and play—teasing, touching, hugging and kissing quickly—when not being watched.

From left: Jackson Fisch, Harry Ondrak-Wright, Cameron Flynn, Paris Fitzpatrick, and Daisy May Kemp in Matthew Bourne's "Romeo+ Juliet" (Photo by Johan Persson)

But their power and agency are severely restricted. Early on we see one guard in particular, Tybalt (Adam Galbraith on opening night), lasciviously preying on the young women and finding one in particular, Juliet (Monique Jonas on opening night), to separate from the others and forcibly take into a separate room, clearly against her will.


Soon after enters Romeo (Paris Fitzpatrick on opening night), brought to the institute by his rich and politically powerful parents too preoccupied with their own lives to seemingly care about him. Mercutio (Cameron Flynn on opening night) and his rambunctious friends induct Romeo into the institute by stripping him of his clothes and donning him in white.


Fitzpatrick as Romeo is an exceptional performer, with a wiry boyishness that belies graceful strength and emotive expression. We viscerally feel Romeo’s anxiety and fear coming into the institute, and later the joy of budding romance with Juliet, thanks to his physical eloquence.

Bryony Pennington (left) and New Adventures dancers in Matthew Bourne's "Romeo + Juliet" (Photo by Johan Persson)

The only source of adult love at Verona is Rev. Bernadette Laurence (Daisy May Kemp on opening night), who frolics with Mercutio’s gang and facilitates a ball for the young residents. The young men and women dance robotically in pairs when supervised, but come to sensual life when left alone, the spark between Romeo and Juliet warming into a delicate, dancing flame.


But as in Shakespeare’s play, the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt—here shockingly violent, involving a gun and belt—complicate things for the young lovers and leads to seeming sedation of all the residents, with Romeo in a straight jacket.

Rory MacLeod in Matthew Bourne's "Romeo + Juliet" (Photo by Johan Persson)

The torture Romeo and Juliet feel as they restlessly pace, squirm and roil in their isolated rooms is palpable and so true to their age. Brought together at last by Rev. Laurence, they are ultimately undone not by sleeping potion trickery but Juliet’s seemingly PTSD-induced hallucination of a vengeful Tybalt.


The tragedy of Bourne’s version thus transcends the original tale of doomed teen infatuation. Feelings at the Verona Institute are different—hatred, anger, angst, utter anguish—amid blood, gunshots, strangulation and a whipping belt. The pair’s demise is foreshadowed, but has a heightened emotional resonance in this new context.


But there is much humor here as well, and realistic teenage emotions and reactions, including the sheer cuteness of nascent love captured by a seemingly everlasting kiss. And the choreography itself—both the ensemble numbers and individual movement—is intricately kinetic, often surprising, and always enjoyable.

Rory MacLeod and Monique Jonas in Matthew Bourne's "Romeo + Juliet" (Photo by Johan Persson)

The whiteness of the set and costumes creates a blank canvas on which these dancers perform, each immersing themselves bodily in their roles. There is no weak link among the cast and each character becomes unique (each is given a name in the program).


Among the ensemble, Galbraith as Tybalt and Flynn as Mercutio are especially memorable, capturing different expressions of masculinity—one toxic, one joyous. The women, including the physically astonishing Jonas as Juliet, are strong and capable.


A fusion of remarkable choreography, dance, music and story, Matthew Bourne’s “Romeo + Juliet” offers a charged take on an age-old tale, one that speaks to being human in a cold, oppressive world where love nonetheless finds a way—however fleetingly.


Matthew Bourne’s “Romeo + Juliet” continues at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, through Feb. 25, with performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (213) 628-2772 or visiting Run time is 2 hours, including intermission.



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