'Romeo'

Jack Mikesell as Romeo and Christina Elmore as Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet." (Michael Lamont)

Plays, regardless of when they were written, take place in the eternal present. Updating a classic — for example, resetting Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" in late-1920s Los Angeles, as Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles has done — is a tried-and true-tactic of contemporary directors. But more often than not it's beside the point.

The test of a revival is how well an ensemble can make the characters and language live again. And on that basis Kenn Sabberton's production, which is being performed outdoors at the Japanese Garden on the grounds of the VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Center campus through July 26, gets mixed results.

The concept of transforming the Capulets and Montagues into rival newspaper magnates is ultimately more distracting than revitalizing. Holly Poe Durbin's eye-catching costumes are the biggest beneficiary.

Gregory Linington's foppish, fast-talking Mercutio is a scene-stealer, but his 20th century wise-guy manner makes it somewhat challenging to follow the meaning of what he's saying. The same is true for Kimberly Scott's Nurse, whose sassy delivery gives a sitcom ring to lines that are trickier than anything uttered on TV these days.

These talented actors are clearly following their director's modernizing mandate, which has some spry payoff when the lads of the production (including Christopher Michael Rivera's Tybalt and Wyatt Fenner's Benvolio) are carousing or roughhousing.

But the freshest aspect of Sabberton's production is the delicate innocence of Jack Mikesell's Romeo and Christina Elmore's Juliet. Their love, at once tentative and heedless, doesn't need to be jazzed up because it's timeless at its tragic core.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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'Romeo and Juliet'

Where: Japanese Garden at the VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Center campus, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Ends July 26.

Tickets: $20, $49, plus premium $70 (includes dinner box)

Contact: (213) 893-8293 or http://www.shakespearecenter.org

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes