The Quintessence Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet is almost uniquely suited to its venue. Staged in the converted lobby of the historic Sedgwick Theater in Mt. Airy, Philadelphia, one must first walk through the new lobby, decorated with chalkboard illustrations of the current season; a wide hall with soaring ceilings and enormous cracked mirror panels, where preparations for the Opening Night celebrations are neatly screened off from the traces of the ongoing renovations; the actual backstage; and finally, the distinctive Art Deco archways that lead into the performance space, flanking the thrust stage and answering any lingering questions about what would happen if you crossed a black box theater with an ancient Egyptian tomb. The inheritance of history coincides with modern creativity and proves to be an excellent introduction for the Quintessence Theatre's transformative Romeo and Juliet.
The set design by director Alexander Burns is deliberately restrained, the black stage and backdrop directing the focus to the set's statement piece: twin banks of old television monitors that display each scene's location, broadcast the fight scenes in real time, and provide the occasional visual effects (dance party screensavers, the pattern of moonlight on leaves, blood spatters...) The larger thematic purpose of these monitors is rather mysterious, but there is no question that they add an unsettling tone to the production, underscoring the action with the atmospheric glow of their screens and the dispassionate cyberpunk gaze of obsolete technology.
Jane Casanave's costume design, meanwhile, loosely alludes to the mid-twentieth century like a less-Technicolor version of West Side Story. The men mostly wear suits or sport coats, the women day dresses and cardigans. Colors are muted but not absent with the sparkling reds and golds of the party crashers' masks, the bright blue of Romeo's skinny tie, Juliet's white-trimmed aquamarine dress with matching white sweater. Conformity to the period is not particularly strict, but occasionally it is a little too on-the-nose; it seems dreadfully convenient that Mercutio and Tybalt just happen to turn up for their fight scene dressed in black jeans and leather greaser jackets.
Unlike many other experimental stagings of Shakespeare's work, the actors adopt a more naturalistic style that keeps the production grounded even when more stylized elements are attempted. As the eponymous lovers, both Connor Hammond and Emiley Kiser strike a delicate balance between mouthpiece for an epic romance and overdramatic teenager; for the most part, their youthful performances manage to convey the all-consuming intensity of Romeo and Juliet's passion without losing the charm and humor of teenaged excess.
They are supported in this regard by the rest of the cast, who react much as one might expect to such frequent outpourings of emotion. E. Ashley Izard as the Nurse splits her time between hilariously un-self-conscious earthiness and a pragmatic disregard for the extremes of Juliet's temperament, all without ever losing a genuine affection for her charge. Jahzeer Terrell and Alan Brincks portray Romeo's companions as his near-foils: Terrell's even-keeled Benvolio endures his friends' shenanigans with patience, while Brincks' Mercutio reacts just as strongly as Romeo but with a more cynical and deliberately performative edge. (In a particularly hilarious moment, Brincks has Mercutio get so involved in the dramatics of his Queen Mab speech that even the ever-dramatic Romeo starts looking askance.) Josh Carpenter shows Friar Laurence becoming increasingly overwhelmed by the strength of his young friends' feelings; he evolves from a long-suffering fondness, to an exasperation that provokes even a religious man to spit his oaths like a string of profanities, to a near panic as he attempts to find a non-suicidal solution for Juliet. The cast has excellent chemistry, which makes it wholly believable that when deprived of their more level-headed support system, Romeo (exiled from his friends and any news of their plans) and Juliet (abandoned by her parental figures as they attempt to sacrifice her to their whims) spiral into self-destruction.
In addition to the TV monitors, Burns continues the anachronistic technological theme with electronic music (by composer/sound designer Steven Cahill) and impressive array of lighting effects (by lighting designer David Sexton). The action is underscored by an unsettling soundtrack – sometimes a little too obviously: with the Chorus already revealing the ending to play up front, it seems unnecessary to accompany every instance of foreshadowing with a scare chord. The Capulets' masquerade is transformed into a rave, the partygoers moving in intriguing patterns that mix modern and court dances. Romeo and Juliet's first meeting takes place in a stylized sequence where spotlights pick them out from the confusion of the party as their dance partners combine in formation to lift them both in the air. Like the TV monitors, the effect is quite visually striking, but it is difficult to determine the larger thematic significance of these flourishes: the music and visuals are divorced from the rest of the setting and the production makes no comment on modern technology.
However, Burns does offer an intriguing treatment of the play's text. The play is tightly edited, with minor characters combined and wholes scenes skipped (Act I, Scene 1 once again falls prey to omission) or streamlined. But Burns goes a step further, staging several scenes together simultaneously in "triptychs and diptychs". The actors for each scene have their own distinctive space on stage and in dialogue, even as their lines and blocking weave together and play off each other in an innovative transformative interpretation. It is a technique that depends on the audience's familiarity with the play, but it offers a fascinating look into the connections and parallels within Shakespeare's writing.
Though the production's various threads of imaginative potential don't quite come together as a cohesive whole, each individual part is entertaining and well-executed. The Quintessence Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet shows that, by drawing on and combining varied aesthetic influences, even one of Shakespeare's most well-known plays can be a source of new enlightenment.