Shakespeare in Philadelphia: The Arden’s Romeo and Juliet Introduces a Season of the Bard

Four hundred years after his death, William Shakespeare remains the world’s most produced playwright. For evidence of his enduring popularity look no further than the region’s stages: there are at least five productions of the Bard’s plays in the Philadelphia area this weekend alone and more than a dozen more being staged in the next few months. There are the old standards — King Lear at the People’s Light and Theatre Company and Macbeth at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre — and some ambitious projects — Collingswood Shakespeare Company is presenting four historical plays in repertory. The most imaginative is the Ides of March production of Julius Caesar, re-envisioned in five acts by five theater companies and held at a secret location — instructions just say to meet at the Vine Street stop of the Broad Street Subway. These varied productions will do well to live up to the standard set by the Arden Theatre Company’s fast-paced and truly funny Romeo and Juliet, on stage through April 11.

In Pennsylvania, Romeo and Juliet marks for many the first exposure to the genius of Shakespeare. State standards mandate schools to assign the well-known tragedy to every ninth grade class and many teachers take the opportunity to bring large student groups to productions of the classic. The Arden’s production — under the direction of local young talent Matt Pfeiffer — is well-geared to a youthful audience, and weekday matinee performances are already almost completely sold out.

Romeo and JulietThe story is known to all except the greenest freshmen: teenagers from two rival families fall in love but fate conspires to bring their union to disastrous ends. But just as Much Ado About Nothing is a coincidence or two away from being a tragedy, Romeo and Juliet is a fine comedy until the deaths of Romeo’s friend Mercutio and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt — the scene with which Pfeiffer concludes the hilarious (though slow to get going) first act. The tragedy that unfolds in the second act is expertly built in this staging, tension heightened through short, dramatically cut scenes, none better than the split-stage manner in which the couple learns of Romeo’s banishment. (This technique is less successful when Romeo is told of Juliet’s faked death before it is even discovered.) The fast pace and well-choreographed violence should appeal to modern theatergoers as the MTV-inspired 1990s film appeared to an early generation. They may also like (although I did not) the emotion-seeking score encroaching on some of the play’s critical scenes.

Pfeiffer’s is most commended for the play’s casting. Shawn Fagan joyously presents the playfulness of Mercutio and Evan Jonigkeit and Mahira Kakkar put in strong performances as the young couple, but there are unused depths of quality even in the smallest roles: Scott Greer as Lord Capulet, Frank X as Lord Montague, Brian Anthony Wilson as the Prince, and Sean Lally as Tybalt, just to name a few. The boldest character decisions come with a sexy and sassy (not the usual frumpy and fretful) Nurse (Suzanne O’Donnell), and a contemplative and sincere (elsewhere bumbling) Friar Lawrence (Anthony Lawton).

Romeo and Juliet sees Shakespeare at his poetic best, both in language and in plot, and the Arden’s simple split level stage and talent-packed performances strip the action to its profound core. In Shakespeare, as in life, we don’t always live happily ever after.

Published by Philly2Philly.

Shakespeare on stage around Philadelphia this month:

The National Constitution Center is presenting a free reading of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the poignant account of the Trojan War, on Monday, March 22, 2010 at 6:30 p.m. with the Philadelphia Artists’ Collective. Admission is FREE. The event is held in conjunction with world debut exhibition Ancient Rome & America, which is on display until August 1.

Romeo and Juliet
through April 11
Arden Theatre

Julius Caesar
March 11–16

The War of the Roses (Henry IV, parts 1–3, and Richard III)
through March 21
Collingswood Shakespeare Festival

King Lear
through March 28
People’s Light and Theatre Company

through May 8
Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre

Love Labour’s Lost
through March 27
The Barley Sheaf Players

Evan Jonigkeit as Romeo in Arden Theatre Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Mark Garvin.

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