The Montagues and the Capulets take the stage at the Arden.
The Arden Theatre Company continues their season with director Matt Pfeiffer’s exhilarating production of Romeo and Juliet .
Directors typically bend over backward to make Shakespeare seem fresh and contemporary but Pfeiffer takes a different route. His straightforward production (which plays on a bare, dual-level stage similar to the Globe Theater) doesn’t recontextualize or contemporize the text yet still makes R&J feel like a new play instead of a 400-year-old fossil.
Part of the reason for this freshness is Pfeiffer’s subtle editing of the text, which his cast delivers with a contemporary musicality reminiscent of hip-hop. The result is a youthful sensibility that pervades the production, driven by the performances of Evan Jonigkeit as Romeo and Mahira Kakkar as Juliet.
Alternating public scenes with moments of intimacy and isolation, the play opens with a street brawl. Fantastically staged, it’s an adrenaline-inducing beginning, thanks to Dale Anthony Girard’s amazingly realistic fight choreography, which allows the audience to feel the fury of the young male combatants.
The street battles throughout the play are spawned by the war between the Montagues and Capulets. No one seems to know the source of the ancient family feud but the hatred runs deep. To the audience, the clans are nearly identical (a fact underscored by costume designer Rosemarie E. McKelvey’s matching red and blue blazers), but only the young Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet are capable of transforming the hate into love.
Filled with oxymorons and paradoxes, the tale views love and hate interdependently. “My only love born from my only hate,” Juliet cries after learning the identity of her Romeo and their love (and death) is the catalyst for the eventual resolution of the dispute.
However, while the family quarrel is the chief reason for the play’s tragic conclusion, it’s not the only cause. Chance plays a part, as does the lovers’ own inexperience.
In a pair of strong, appealing performances, Jonigkeit and Kakkar emphasize Romeo and Juliet’s impetuosity. Driven by youthful innocence, they leap before they look and regularly throw caution to the wind.
Kakkar’s Juliet is pleasant to her parents, but she is far from submissive. Depicted by Shakespeare as an independent woman in the days before actresses were permitted on stage, Juliet knows what she wants and is willing to defy her parents for the man she loves.
Her attraction to Romeo is understandable. Jonigkeit’s Romeo is a sensitive, chivalrous young man. He is also a typical teenage male, and while we admire his passion, his temper and rashness leads to his eventual banishment from the city.
The highlight of the pair’s coupling is the famed balcony scene, and Jonigkeit and Kakkar play it with the glassy-eyed, slack-jawed look reserved for first-time lovers.
Sharp performances are also turned in by Scott Greer as the domineering Lord Capulet, Melanye Finister as his surprisingly passionate wife and Suzanne O’Donnell, who is fabulous as Juliet’s devoted and delightfully sassy Nurse.
Easily Shakespeare’s most romantic and humorous tragedy, the Arden’s production effectively elicits a wide range of emotions and in doing so confirms Shakespeare’s place as theater’s most versatile playwright. ■
Romeo and Juliet
Through April 11. $29-$48. Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St. 215.922.1122. ardentheatre.org
Calendar: December 17-24
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