ROMEO AND JULIET (Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre): A Love to Die for

Victoria Bonito and Akeem Davis in ROMEO AND JULIET
Photo courtesy of The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre

They’ve known each other for what—a couple of hours? Already they’re crazy in love, and they’ll steadfastly love each other against all odds. A love to die for. One of the world’s most celebrated and enduring love stories, ROMEO AND JULIET, is currently on stage at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre.

Several fairly recent productions of the play in Philadelphia and elsewhere have tried new spins: Curio had lesbian lovers, with R&J it was schoolboys, Broadway had Romeo on a motorcycle and played all-white Montagues against all-black Capulets. Other shows have cut the balcony scene. It’s almost unusual to see ROMEO AND JULIET served straight up. Which is essentially what Philly Shakespeare does, except for reciting sonnets by local writers during interludes within the play. These sonnets won a competition and they’re really good. But positioned this way they tend to break the narrative. Top sonnets are also displayed on a bulletin board outside the theater space, where they can be read without taking the focus off the play.

This production is a good candidate for students’ first experience of ROMEO AND JULIET. David O’Connor, with sensitive direction and fluid, active staging, keeps things moving. But he also keeps the meaning of the words paramount and exploits the puns, so it doesn’t get boring. Michael Cosenza’s fight choreography makes these 21st century actors—to inexpert eyes at least—come off as practiced swordsmen.

O’Connor’s vision is more about playing up Juliet’s pragmatism and Romeo’s lovesick angst, and less focused on romantic tenderness and beguiling lyricism.  While Juliet is white and Romeo is black, race is a non-issue. Victoria Bonito’s fine parsing of Juliet’s words illuminates their meaning, and Akeem Davis lights up the stage as a lovestruck, dynamic, and sometimes very amusing Romeo.

Audiences always love scene stealers Mercutio and the Nurse. But the actors, J Hernandez and J.J. Van Name respectively, don’t just count on the popularity of their characters to carry them, and each has mastered phenomenal line readings.

Economies of production keep things small. Who can afford Shakespeare’s 25 dramatis personae plus citizens, kin, guards, maskers, attendants, musicians and so forth?  Still, a robust and festive Capulet party with more party guests, lively music and dancing would provide a welcome shake up. The playscript, too, is cropped down to the bare basics. Surprisingly, in Philly Shakespeare’s staging, Paris (James Kern) is kept in the tomb scene. Paris is often cut from the scene in order to keep the focus on R&J. Philly Shakespeare’s decision to leave him in is a good thing in terms of seeing the consequences of the story: Five people die due to the Montague-Capulet feud.

An overly busy motif of curlicued surface decoration upstages the set’s good bones. But the scenic and lighting design have their moments. One example is an imaginative and spookily lit view of the crypt, glimpsed late in the show.

This ROMEO AND JULIET’s charm and strength derives from casting quality actors to work with a fully engaged director who keeps things lively without losing the detail and impact of the language. [The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom Street] April 4-May 18, 2014.

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