"Romeo and Juliet" is about a lot of things — love, families, the corrosive nature of civil discord — but at its heart, Shakespeare's tragedy is about two young people awakening to their own mortality.
It's that quality that illuminates the haunting new California Shakespeare Theater production, directed by Shana Cooper with a keen mix of youthful urgency and heightened emotion.
Cooper, who staged a brilliant "The Taming of the Shrew" for the company in 2011, doesn't sound every note in this "Romeo and Juliet." But her production captures what makes the play so thrilling — the intense love between its teenage title characters, which flares up and burns brightly over a few hot summer days in Verona. The director and her designers create a bold, fluid staging infused with contemporary touches. Seven actors play all the parts, wearing a stylish mix of T-shirts and skinny jeans, leather coats and vests (costumes by Christine Crook).
Cooper keeps the entire cast onstage throughout. When they're not in a scene, they're in the background, observing. Daniel Ostling's spare platform stage, atmospherically lit by Lap Chi Chu, is adorned with a few emblematic pieces — a bed, a ladder, a trapdoor.
Paul James Prendergast's score blends techno and subtle sound effects, fueling Erika Chong Shuch's dance numbers and Dave Maier's fight scenes, played with short, sharp knives rather than traditional swords.
The title characters radiate youthful energy. Rebekah Brockman is a remarkable Juliet — impetuous, eloquent and physically agile.
If Dan Clegg isn't quite her match, he's a charming, exuberantly immature Romeo. When Juliet swears to love him, he literally jumps for joy. Their portrayals deepen with each successive scene, acquiring the darker notes and tragic overtones that foreshadow the final outcome.
The supporting cast plays multiple roles.
Dan Hiatt nearly steals the show as a volatile Lord Capulet and a gentle Friar Lawrence. Domenique Lozano exudes warmth as the Nurse and authority as the Prince. Joseph J. Parks starts the evening as an unsettled Mercutio and returns as the Apothecary. Arwen Anderson is a stalwart Benvolio and a frosty Lady Capulet, Nick Gabriel is a fiery Tybalt and a pompous Paris.
Running a brisk 2 hours, 20 minutes (with one intermission), Cooper's staging occasionally feels a little too streamlined. But her focus on Shakespeare's young protagonists yields substantial rewards, right up to the devastating final scene.IF YOU GO
Romeo and Juliet
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; closes July 28
Tickets: $20 to $72
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org