In popular consciousness, the position that Romeo and Juliet occupies is one of extremes. It's arguably Shakespeare's most famous play (with only Hamlet for competition), and the feud between the Montagues and the Capulets embodies the archetype of senseless violence even as the title characters' relationship is touted as the romantic ideal. However, the events of the tragedy are not enacted by larger-than-life heroes or dastardly villains, but by characters who are amazingly human. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet focuses on the characters as normal people, and in doing so brings out the complexities elevate a familiar tale into an enduring cultural presence.
The costume design by Vickie Esposito is an ahistorical mix of modern dress and Elizabethan props and weaponry, highlighting the play's resonance in any era. Esposito also adds an element of metatheatricality: Juliet attends the masquerade as essentially herself, wearing a medieval gown highly reminiscent of the character's traditional costume, while the feud is literally reduced to black (Montagues) and white (Capulet) even as the action makes it clear this is far from the case.
Dirk Durossette's scenic design also evokes the thematic center of the production. The focus is the enormous backing wall and its balcony, immediately recalling the play's most well-known love scene, while the lower half consists of chain-link fences used to separate and imprison the characters. Meanwhile, the primary media of concrete and steel that speak to the play's themes of violence and captivity are rendered into stately walls covered in floral carvings and vibrant red girders or ornamental metal screens, demonstrating that beauty can be created even under dire conditions. However, this structure is just as clearly a façade over uncut stone, and at the play's climax backlighting reveals that it houses the tomb of the Capulets, filled with skeletal remains and ancient weaponry, a silent testimony to the dark history of conflict underlying the veneer of civilization.
The actors' excellent performances deliberately delve into this complexity, particularly demonstrated by the way the supporting cast's portrayals emphasize the humanity of their characters. J.J. Van Name adds an undercurrent of shrewdness to the Nurse's loving buffoonery; her immediate recognition and rejection of Romeo and her attempts to cajole Juliet into a less problematic marriage suggest a nascent political instinct that rounds out her motherly instincts and tendency towards the ridiculous. James Tolbert plays the Friar as a man torn between his desire to help – end the feud, deliver Romeo to safety, rescue Juliet from an unwanted marriage – and his utter lack of preparation for confronting the sheer number of challenges suddenly heaped upon his head. Even the portrayal of Lord and Lady Capulet (Kevin Bergen and Caroline Crocker, respectively) steers away from emphasizing their antagonism in favor of their relationships (close with each other, somewhat awkwardly distant with Juliet) and familial pride. Bergen and Crocker show the Capulets with a real sense of accomplishment in presenting their daughter, hosting their party, and arranging a brilliant match between Juliet and Paris. When tragedy strikes with the death of Tybalt, they fall back on this desire to control what they can; their forcing Juliet into marriage is part of their desperate scramble to regain their equanimity.
A common theme runs through the cast's performances, uniting characters of all bloodlines and classes: their baffled reactions to the many dramas of Romeo and Juliet. Director David O'Connor states that he is trying to emphasize the sense of alienation brought about by falling in love, and as a bonus, it synchronizes with the trials of interacting with – or being – teenagers. Fortunately, Akeem Davis as Romeo and Victoria Bonito as Juliet imbue their characters with a surfeit of charm that more than justifies why their friends and family (and the audience) allow themselves to grow so invested in their futures. Bonito's Juliet is a young woman of action, always pressing forward despite the many obstacles she faces. She openly displays her vulnerability even as she bravely charges into unknown emotional territory. Davis, meanwhile, makes it clear why even Capulet himself remarks, "Verona brags of him / To be a virtuous and well-govern'd youth": his Romeo is truly gentle, and while his own love is foremost in his mind, he still cares deeply and unselfishly about everyone. He is appalled by the violence of the feud and honestly tries to reconcile with Tybalt for his own sake as well as Juliet's. When Romeo too succumbs to violence in his fights with Tybalt and Paris, he shows genuine remorse and disgust at killing other human beings. Even in the depths of his suicidal despair, he takes the time to express his concerns that the sickly drug-dealing apothecary "buy food, and get thyself in flesh." Davis and Bonito play out the common teenage apprehension that no one truly understands how they feel; while not completely accurate, Romeo and Juliet are misjudged enough that their own best qualities lead them to their demise.
If there is one problem with the direction, it is that director David O'Connor has made the characters too likable – to the extent that it is difficult to determine why the feud still continues. O'Connor seems to foreground the idea that even ordinary people can commit extraordinary atrocities when pushed to the breaking point, but the production lacks the simmering undercurrent of hatred and violence needed to justify those breaking points. Paris's death scene highlights the problem with this approach: using the production's own characterizations, it simply makes no sense that the least-threatening person in Verona somehow manages to provoke Romeo into stabbing him while he is unarmed. The escalation of conflict seems only dictated by the play's plot as opposed to emerging organically from the action.
However, O'Connor's direction is otherwise excellent. The production smoothly adapts to some rather significant editing of the text, maintaining its major themes and relationships without sacrificing clarity. The dynamic blocking makes excellent use of the set, perfectly demonstrated by the opening scene: the amusing banter of Sampson and Gregory erupts into enthusiastic stage fighting which flows into the participants imprisoned behind the chain-link fence as the Prince passes sentence upon them. Even the curious choice of music – a mix of live accompaniment by the cast and a drum machine-, synthesizer-fuelled tribute to the 1980s – gels perfectly with the action.
O'Connor also features some interesting additions to the play: sonnets, written by locals for the Show Us Your Love competition in celebration of Shakespeare's 450th birthday, which add a valuable dimension to the production. Many of the sonnets touch on the alienation of falling in love, echoing not just O'Connor's admissions of his own experiences, but ultimately Romeo and Juliet's emotional journey in the play. The title characters are namechecked specifically as the representatives of the ideal relationship for which the authors strive, but the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre's production suggests that Romeo and Juliet endures because it reflects universal experiences of love – and life – in all its dimensions, the dark side and the light.