Director Rick Sordelet freshens up Shakespeare's most famous play.
Every summer, some of Philly’s finest talent migrates north for the summer to the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival in Center Valley, about an hour outside of Philly. PSF’s large Festival Stage is currently offering an intriguing production of Romeo and Juliet.
Shakespeare has gotten a lot of play around here lately: The Arden put on an exhilarating production of Romeo and Juliet in the spring, and this summer alone there’ve been productions of Measure for Measure from Temple Rep, a free Midsummer Night’s Dream in Clark Park and another from Philadelphia Shakespeare Company, Henry V later this month and two more of Shakespeare’s texts slated for production at the upcoming Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe.
With so many productions of old Shakespearean chestnuts, the director must balance distinguishing his or her production from the pack of thousands with preserving whatever it was about the play that made it so beloved in the first place. Here, director Rick Sordelet doesn’t try to re-invent Romeo and Juliet, but does take a fresh approach; instead of building the production around the play’s love/hate parallel (as most do), he focuses on the violence and citywide scope of the tragedy. Betsy Mugavero and David Kenner give mature performances as the doomed couple, but PSF’s production makes clear that their personal tragedy has far-reaching effects on Verona.
The production is buoyed by strong supporting performances. As Lord Capulet, Philly favorite Greg Wood switches between convincing remorse and anger (when Juliet defies her father’s wish that she marry Paris, Wood’s Capulet repudiates his daughter with frightening intensity). Susan Riley Stevens (another local favorite who is married to Wood in real life) brings her own passion and fury to the role of vengeful Lady Capulet. Jo Twiss is excellent as Juliet’s likeable Nurse, and Paul Kiernan is magnificent as Friar Lawrence.
Just as Twiss’ Nurse is a maternal figure to Juliet, Kiernan’s Friar is a paternal presence in Romeo’s life. More confident and assured than the usual depiction of Lawrence, Kiernan’s friar can be both sensitive and reprimanding. We find a banished Romeo sobbing on the floor in the Friar’s abbey after he kills Tybalt. After chastising the youth for his “womanish” tears, Lawrence takes the distraught Romeo in his arms and consoles him; it’s the show’s most touching moment.
Director Sordelet is known primarily as a fight choreographer, and the combat at PSF doesn’t disappoint. The battle between the Capulets and Montagues is satisfyingly fierce, and the jarring abruptness of the duel between Tybalt and Romeo effectively illustrates the young men’s rashness and how suddenly life goes awry for poor Romeo, who minutes earlier envisioned a life of joy with his beloved.
The set by Steve TenEyck represents a public square in Verona. A stone slab serves as the central playing area. The spaciousness works well for the play’s many outdoor gatherings, but fails to adequately suggest Juliet’s bedroom, diminishing the play’s sense of intimacy and contrast between public and private lives.
The set works well with Sordelet’s focus on the wider-spread effects of the two teenagers’ doomed love. As the death toll mounts, we see the entire city become a victim of the feud between the Capulets and Montagues. Rosemarie McKelvey’s costumes further contribute to the sense of tragedy. Instead of dressing the two families in opposing colors, the usual method of distinguishing the families as warring tribes, McKelvey highlights their similarities, outfitting most male characters in uniforms of flattering vests and dark jeans.
Dontee Keihn’s choreography adds to the contemporary tone of McKelvey’s costumes, particularly in an odd fantasy sequence where Romeo imagines he is dancing with Juliet to Prince’s “Kiss.” As the song plays, the pair do a sort of impromptu spotlight dance that establishes the couple’s youthful vigor.
The full title of Shakespeare’s play may be The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, but in PSF’s staging, the tragedy belongs to everyone.
The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet
Through Aug. 8
Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival
2755 Station Ave.