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New `Romeo and Juliet' staging rolls the dice on love in a casino

November 22, 2010 |  5:30 pm

ChaseMcKennaAsJuliet Calling all Shakespeare buffs: Tell us if you’ve heard this one before.

The “Romeo and Juliet” that’s playing at the Hollywood American Legion Post 43 through Dec. 12 casts the Montagues as operators of the Verona Hotel & Casino, where Romeo is the floor manager, and Juliet and her Capulet kin are guests of the establishment.

It’s the maiden production of the Merry War Theatre Group, whose co-founder, Chase McKenna (pictured), directs and plays Juliet. In a press release announcing the show, she says that while the star cross’d lovers’ tale has “been reinvented countless times with different locations, time periods and themes, an idea came to me for a concept of the play that I’d never seen done before.”

Culture Monster was curious as to just how far the company was going to take the concept, given the venue’s unusual theatrical history.

HollywoodAmericanLegionPost43 The  American Legion hall (pictured) is where political plotters and dissolute bon vivants frolicked for 10  years, from 1984 to '94, in “Tamara,” an environmental theater piece set in Mussolini’s Italy.  Audience members pretended they were interlopers at an island villa off the Italian coast, and were free to wander from room to room through the distinctive Egyptian-revival/Moroccan deco building, eavesdropping from up-close on whatever scene was being performed in that nook. The evening included food and drink for playgoers.

A visit to the Merry War website revealed visions of lavish dining facilities and gourmet fare being prepared and served, along with a cast list depicting each Montague as staff of the hotel/casino –- bartender, bell hop, etc., including a Mercutio who’s in charge of room service.

Could this new production be Shakespeare adapted to the environmental theater concept of “Tamara,” with the audience invited to roam with Romeo, and  –- who knows? -– maybe even play a hand of blackjack with a Capulet?

HollywoodAmericanLegionPost43Atrium Well, no. But Merry War co-founder Phillip Kelly says that while there’s no opportunity for playgoers to ramble, gamble or gorge themselves, the production was developed specifically with its space in mind. It unfolds in the hall’s atrium (pictured), where Terance Duddy, events administrator of the American Legion post, says the balcony and a shrine where plaques memorialize deceased post members make for Shakespeare-ready locations, all within easy eyeshot of the seated audience.

The whole building got another theatrical workout last year with “The House of Besarab,” which Duddy adapted from “Dracula” and directed in the environmental-play style of “Tamara.” He cast McKenna as Mina, the thirsty count’s love interest, and now she’s back with her own crew, adding Shakespeare to the American Legion post’s theatrical tradition.

According to Duddy, the only shows ever to run longer in L.A. than “Tamara” were “The Drunkard” and “Arizona,” melodramas that played 26 years and 16 years, respectively, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “Tamara” racked up 400,000 admissions –- although not all were paid. After you’d bought a ticket five times, you were declared a “lifer” and could come for free and follow the rest of the 10 different paths through the show, one for each character.

-- Mike Boehm

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Photos: Chase McKenna as Juliet; Hollywood American Legion Post 43 exterior; atrium of Hollywood American Legion hall. Credits: Merry War Theatre Group (McKenna); American Legion Post 43.