Romeo Hall & Juliet Oates

In its annual skewering of Shakespeare's plays, the Troubadour Theater Co. has always had it both ways, playing close to the source material while engaging in obvious parody. The company (based in Los Angeles but very friendly with the Grove Theater Center) has balanced such incongruous elements as disco music and A Midsummer Night's Dream and clown life and Love's Labour's Lost. In those rare moments when artistic director Matt Walker tries to appear serious, he might even suggest that the Troubadour's mutilations of Shakespeare were honest attempts to channel the playwright's original intent. Between goofball parody and historical accuracy, the group drew a very fine line.

This year, the fine line has yawned into an enormous chasm. In Romeo Hall and Juliet Oates, the Troubadour makes no attempt to adhere to the evergreen story; the original is a mere body upon which the company inflicts its uniquely gleeful sense of comic mayhem. The actors don't deconstruct or reconstruct Romeo and Juliet as much as greedily devour it in a drunken bacchanal—and expel it from all ports. The end product is likely to be the funniest thing you'll see on a local stage this year. Did I say “likely”? I flat-out guarantee it. Shakespeare scholars might not approve, but one guesses the 16th-century writer who filled his plays with dick jokes, fart gags, drunks and whores would have the gayest of times.

This year, Troubadour tackles the 1970s and '80s pop music of Hall & Oates. It's a scheme the troupe first tested successfully with its pairing of Three Dog Night and Twelfth Night a couple of years ago. The Queen Mab speech—as one phenomenally brilliant theater mind (see last week's Theater listings in Calendar) correctly assumed before seeing the play—is now “Man-Eater.” The Nurse now admonishes Juliet with “Rich Girl.” Romeo serenades Juliet with “Sara Smile,” which, of course, makes no sense.

The play goes on and on with just about every one of the duo's startlingly long list of pop hits. Whatever your take on Hall & Oates (horrible as they were, their songs feel positively inspired at the moment), the music fits the proceedings.

Troubadour stalwart Rick Batalla plays Romeo Hall, whose family is at odds with the Oates. Looking as much like the Doritos-crunching Avery Schreiber as John Hall (the guy who wasn't blond), Batalla is a gifted performer who gets to show off his ample comedic skills, impressive vocal chops and improvisational talents—often simultaneously. His counterpart as Juliet is Meleney Humphrey, who plays Juliet Oates with a doe-eyed, nearly brain-dead, straight-woman sensibility that works perfectly in this company of lunatics.

Walker is the standout, a man who serves as MC, Paris, Mercutio, traffic cop, referee and countless other roles and is always sidesplittingly brilliant. This guy's talents as a director and physical comedian have been sung many times in many ways. But who knew he could sing, too? Michelle Anne Johnson, who has sung well many times before, does so again, turning in a memorable performance as Juliet's dental-hygiene-challenged nurse. And is it my imagination, or is Johnson (an African-American) making a rather angry comment on Hollywood's habit of giving dignified-maid parts to darker-skinned actors? The rest of the ensemble (including David Barker, who supplies all the music via the keyboard) is awesome, brilliant and funny, particularly Beth Kennedy's Mommy Dearest-like Lady Oates.

The show isn't perfect. There's a rushed-together quality about it, particularly the punchless beginning and undercooked ending. And not being a Hall & Oates fan, I'd rather see more ass-kicking, sharp elbows and sex jokes than ballast-free ballads.

It's a remarkable irony that the Orange County Fair has spent so much to hire the real Hall & Oates to play in Costa Mesa later this month (in years past, the fair has spent as much as $30,000 on acts with less drawing power than Hall & Oates). The fair board might more wisely have spent that money hiring one of the 21st century's funniest comic troupes.

Romeo Hall and Juliet Oates at Grove Theater Center, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, (714) 741-9555. Fri.-Sat., 8:30 p.m. $22.50.

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