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Downtown as a Performance Backdrop

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Wednesday, July 14, 2010, at 07:13AM
IMG_8276 Ed Fuentes

Downtown Repertory Theater Company production of Romeo and Juliet with Dylan Wittrock (center) as Romeo, Karina Noelle (right) As Juliet, directed by Peter Wittrock (left) and produced by Devon Armstrong (back).

Downtown's role as a co-star for summer productions appeared to be going on haitus when Shakespeare Festival/LA announced that they would not hold performances this summer. Now renamed The Shakespeare Center, the company is using 2010 to focus on educational programming and plan their return to the summer stage in 2011.

It turns out that the city's gotten itself cast in a pair of other productions. At El Pueblo, Downtown Repertory Theater Company is having a romance with a young Los Angeles, while City Ballet dances with today's Downtown at City National Plaza.

The Downtown Repertory Theater Company opened their season last week in the Pico House at El Pueblo, featuring a production of Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet" set in California toward the end of Mexican rule.

It's a change for the company that last year set a foreboding and dark season of tragedies in a parking structure on Main street. The historic Pico House, located across the plaza from Olvera Street, offers the group natural light and upper decks that hint of the original outdoor Globe Theatre that premiered Shakespeare's works in London.

That sense of history prompted the company to set the romantic tragedy in 1870, when the then Pico Hotel was completed by the Mexican Governor of Alta California.

The company planned to do a classic Shakespeare play that fit in with their site-specific mission statement, and when they walked in the airy brick courtyard, the romantic tragedy found a summer home. “The space also struck to set it in Mexican-Ruled Alta California,” says artistic director Devon Armstrong. “At the time, Governor Pio Pico was affluent, but he died a pauper after his land was stolen under him. That immense shift was happening in California, and at the time Romeo and Juliet was written similar shifts were going on in England.”

Director Peter Wittrock has casted the rival Montagues and Calulets to reflect the divided landscape. Romeo's family is Anglo, while Juilet's is Latino.

Modern architecture is also a muse this summer. Last week, City Ballet opened their second year of “Concerto Project,” a series of works that takes its name from architect Doug Hanson's residential tower at 9th and Figueroa. Hanson is also on the City Ballet Los Angeles' Board of Directors and a prominent fundraiser for the City West-based ballet school and company.

However, it’s the cityscape that is the muse for the dance company. Under the artistic direction of Robyn Gardenhire, upcoming choreographers and their dancers take over a floor of City National Plaza with views of the city, and the performances carry through a theme of the architectural aspects of dance. “What I can’t do in pay, I can give them in a beautiful stage to show their work,” says Gardenhire.

City Ballet’s Gardenhire, as profiled before, has committed to produce dance that reflects the city and often uses Downtown as backdrop. That commitment resonates with performers who find the city telling them stories.

The same goes for those in "Romeo and Juliet." While the press release pokes fun at the company, saying that the cast is made mostly of “broke ruffians” from the L.A. County High School for the Arts, among them are actors with hefty Los Angeles stage experience.

“This is a fantastic place to perform,” says Christine Avila, an original member of Luis Valez’s "Zoot Suit", and the Nurse in "Romeo and Juliet." “The history is inherent in the walls here. The themes of love and forgiveness and what goes on with society when two houses go against each other.”

Downtown Repertory Company present "Romeo and Juliet" / Opened July 10, runs July 16, 17, July 18, July 24, July 25 / 7pm / Free – Donations accepted / "Seating is limited; please email downtownreptheater@gmail.com to make a reservation"

City Ballet Los Angeles “Concerto Project” / Opened July 8, Runs July 15 and 22 / 7pm / Admission: $20 per person / Ticket holders receive 30% off dinner at Chaya Downtown or Drago Centro. A percentage of the proceeds go to CBLA’s scholarship program.

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