Fun with Dead People: “Romeo and Juliet in Hell”

“This,” said one exhausted but happy performer afterward, “is a play for theatre people.”

Romeo and Juliet in Hell delivers plenty of laughs — and groans — to folks who know theatre well. But the fun is open to everyone. It’s not deep or subtle, it’s fast and foolish. And like all good comedy, it’s driven by the familiar foibles of folks who may be famous but are actually just like us. (“Say, doesn’t that fit tragedy, too?” Another conversation.)

The premise: Romeo and Juliet awaken to find that they’re (a) dead, and (b) in Hell. Worse yet, this corner of Hell is populated by all the Shakespeare characters who die in their various plays. (The others are in Heaven, with the Bard. ) The young suicides’ personal torture will be to listen to the West Side Story soundtrack on eternal replay.

Colton Butcher, Lauren Diaz (photo: Patty Mo)

Fortunately, they discover an option: They can sit through a staging of their own story, just once, performed by all the other dead characters. But it has to be a musical. (The Devil, it turns out, is Bob Fosse.)

Romeo and Juliet in Hell is a swift, silly romp in which the characters take turns stealing center stage and chewing the scenery. And it requires an impressive array of talent — actors who can play, for example, a ham actor who’s playing Lady Macbeth who’s playing a parody of Juliet. But in every case, this matryushka doll trick works. No surprise: As so often in LA, the program’s cast bios are a goldmine of  top-notch training and experience.

Carlos Chavez as Tybalt and Nick Ley as Mercutio gleefully introduce the slain couple to their mad new world, Chavez with a protean energy that bubbles and flows like lava, and Ley with a naive dignity that recalls Stan Laurel. And the pair work as smoothly together as any of the great two-comic acts.

Fosse, being Satan, shares the story-driving tasks. Kawika Aguilar sustains this drive while showing us a welcome-masked host with a very dark interior (reminiscent of Cabaret‘s Emcee — or Fosse himself as a director).

Ron Gabaldon (Lear) and Mikael Mattsson (Hamlet/”Romeo”) do two nice — and quite distinct — takes on the actor who bathes his role in Elevation and Nobility. Meanwhile, Chloe Zubiri (Desdemona/Nurse) and Therese Olson (Lady Macbeth/”Juliet”) create a similarly matched yet separate pair of women who’ve gone beyond the pale.

Graydon Schlicter surprises us with a Macbeth who’s hail-fellow-well-met and chats in a Scots burr, while Brenton Sullivan’s Othello exudes a genteel calm we hardly expect from a military man who’s just murdered his wife. Speaking of gentilesse, David Chernyavsky as Laertes exhibits an easy elegance onstage that makes us wish for more.

Romeo and Juliet are, for all their quirks, the sane ones, our fellow explorers in this unknown territory. Colton Butcher and Lauren Diaz skillfully win our sympathies at the outset, and then keep them through all the slings and arrows of an outrageous adventure.

Music opens and closes this show. A flirty yet menacing demon, the redoubtable Jennifer Novak Chun, brings us in with her violin (including “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”), and J. Elijah Cho, whose turn as an egregious Tony crooning “Maria” greets the newly arrived Romeo and Juliet, says farewell to us all at the end with four bars of song that bring down the house.

Playwright Matt Ritchey has deftly raided Shakespeare and modern theatre, from Stoppard to Lloyd-Webber, for this delightful pastiche. And as director, he keeps his 14 actors (and two dozen characters) in balance, in motion, and in focus. The costumes (Gail Murray, Leanne Hall, Melissa Muñoz) are spot-on, and the simple, clever set (Jerry Chapelle) and lighting (Sebastian Muñoz) interact to produce fun infernal effects.

Romeo and Juliet in Hell sets out to amuse and surprise, and does so delightfully. If I ran a Shakespeare company (ahem, King’s Men, Porters of Hellsgate, Shakespeare by the Sea), I’d lock up the rights to this as an annual fundraiser. Until that happens, Force of Nature will continue operating their laugh-filled infernal joyride through November 23rd. Grab a seat!
Romeo and Juliet in Hell, written and directed by Matt Ritchey.
Presented by Force of Nature Productions at the Actors Workshop Studio, 4235 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91605.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30,
through Nov. 23.

Tickets: <>