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Romeo and Juliet — Quintessence Theatre Group at Sedgwick Theatre

r&j -- interiorAlexander Burns infuses the Quintessence stage with energy and romance via his bold, wise use of cinematic techniques in his brilliant and moving “Romeo and Juliet.”

Early in Shakespeare’s play, when assorted combinations of Montagues, Capulets, and Verona nobility assemble to discuss matters as diverse as disturbing local broils, the whereabouts of Romeo, the Capulet ball, and the marriageable age of Juliet, Burns forgoes the separate, sequential structure of these scenes, and has them proceed on stage at once.

This risky stroke of genius not only provides economy but gives these passages an animated immediacy that attunes you to much that Shakespeare sets afoot and an makes you eager to see how all turns out.

Burn triangulates different groups, so Benvolio and Lady Montague — Burns eliminates her lord. — can discuss Romeo downstage right while Benvolio spins down left to encounter Romeo and inquire about his nocturnal escapades and latest bout of love. Meanwhile Anita Holland, as Lady Capulet can go to upstage center to engage in a conversation about Jullet becoming betrothed to the County Paris, and Lord Capulet can talk about grand festivities planned for his villa that night.

Burns’s technique neatly fills you in on all the town gossip, the feud between the Montagues and Capulets, the designs for Juliet within the Capulet home, and Romeo’s skein of swooning infatuations with the teenage damsels in Verona.

Important matter in skillfully intertwined among expository and preparatory details. The nurse, played with witty gusto and enthusiasm by E. Ashley Izard, waxes rhapsodic about the merits of Paris while Juliet protests being promised to someone who has not taken the time woo her. Romeo won’t be the only romantic on Burns’s stage. Benvolio, smartly played by Jahzeer Terrell, who comes across as the most natural of the young cast in opening scenes, deftly sounds out Romeo and his obsession del giorno. The seeds of an intricate, romantic, affecting, yet frequently comic “Romeo and Juliet” are sown, Burns proving an expert planter and harvester of all the play’s themes, issues, and rhythms. This is a “Romeo and Juliet” that should introduce young and uninitiated audiences to Shakespeare. Burns is clear while being shrewd and perceptive in presenting this tale. It’s also a “Romeo and Juliet” to delight Shakespeareanados, the ardent fans, students, and camp followers of the Bard. It’s so textured and so cleverly assembled it can only please.

My only cavil, which has less effect on Burns’s production that my desire for purity in one instance, comes when the illiterate messenger asks Romeo to read him the list of guests he is to invite to the Capulets’ ‘do’ that evening. Josh Carpenter, as the servant, and Connor Hammond, keep Burns’s sharp pace in doing the scene and are funny as the messenger concludes Romeo is also illiterate, but one important element is left out by Burns cutting the actual reading of the guest list. One of the names on that list is Romeo’s current beloved, Rosaline. It is the groan or smile or other indication he gives while reading that name that tells Benvolio the identity of his crush. Without Romeo reacting to saying Rosaline’s name, one wonders how Benvolio gleans it.

No matter, he does, and Terrell and Hammond have a great time parrying with each other over Romeo’s serial passions.

Burns’s cinematic approach takes a dreamily amorous tone when the director has both Romeo and Juliet on stage in the scenes in which they consult Friar Laurence separately, and solo, at Friar Laurence’s cell prior to the marriage. As Romeo speaks of his ardor for Juliet, questioned by the prelate because of Romeo’s frequent desires, Juliet is there, as least in spirit, and Hammond mimes touching and caressing her in a way that is simultaneously loving and sexual. In the same way, Romeo is on stage when Juliet speaks of her ardor, so the bond between the two is visible to the Quintessence audience although Shakespeare had Romeo and Juliet visit in sequence, with the other present.

Burns’s choice to show the two yearning for each other even as they speak plainly to Laurence tell you, with full certainty this Romeo and this Juliet are undoubtedly in love, and Juliet is not an infatuation but the woman to whom the mutable Romeo can stay faithful and adoring for his entire life. Conversely, you see from Emiley Kiser’s expressions and posture, both of which boast sincerity and sexual longing, that Romeo is not just a 13-year-old’s first beau but a man who has truly won her loyalty and her hurt.

As opposed to the myriad couple that have professed love without remotely showing it on Philadelphia stages this young season, Hammond and Kiser convince you, as Romeo and Juliet convince Laurence, that you are seeing genuine love that has gone past a palmer’s kiss or a moonlit exchange of sonnets to indelible affection and regard. For more than the usual reasons, you want this Romeo and Juliet to succeed. While understanding the dramatic reasons Shakespeare didn’t avail himself of an alternative, you rue more than usual that during the post-banishment scene in which Romeo and Juliet are alone with Laurence at his church, the good friar didn’t seize on an advantageous opportunity and dispatch both of them to Romeo’s place of exile, Mantua, and give up on the idea of drugging Juliet into a death-feigning sleep.

So much is laudable in Quintessence’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Burns’s innovative technique establishes, enhances, and spiritedly sustains the overall mood and tone of the production, but it is the full, fitting, and believable performances by the cast — Hammond, Kiser, Terrell, Izard, Carpenter, Alan Brincks, and Gregory Isaac in particular — that catapults his admirable concept to excellent, exhilarating theater.

As brisk and spontaneously as all of “Romeo and Juliet’s” facets are shown, they take on a reality that involves you deeply in the proceedings. Knowing what happens in “Romeo and Juliet” doesn’t preclude or prevent you feeling suspense during some moments of Burns’s production, especially when you note the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt employs guns rather than swords. Trivial or consequential, the matter the various groups discuss at the top of the show interest you. Hammond and Kiser make you love Romeo and Juliet and wish them well beyond what Shakespeare has made inherent in his text. Carpenter’s Laurence is so earnest, Isaac’s Capulet so wonderfully gregarious and commanding, and Holland’s Lady Capulet and Lady Montague so deserving of empathy you are lured into three days of dramatic activity in Verona and have little time nor reason to sit back and watch this classic from a distance.

Burns’s production brims with exuberance, illuminates strong wills at work, solidly addresses the quarrel between the Montagues and Capulets, has humorous passages even in the tomb where Romeo and Juliet in turn find their beloved newly cold from recent death, shows sincere people trying to make the best of a thorny situation, and abounds in palpable, discernible love. Burns takes a highly stylized approach, and includes some high-tech elements that are generally inconsequential, but his staging gets quickly and deeply to the core of all Shakespeare so compactly included in this drama about politically thwarted love. This “Romeo and Juliet” is a highlight of the early season and is bound to remembered a year hence when awards for the 2015-16 theater year are announced.

Connor Hammond is a vigorously animated Romeo who can soften (and harden) into an ardent lover, can show his character’s bravery in the fight with Tybalt, and who is turn playful, insightful, sardonic, sincere, abashed, and heartbreaking. Being young and looking younger yet, Hammond uses his age and diminutive but well-exercised frame to accent Romeo’s youth. This choice will be especially effective when you how Hammond’s Romeo matures as a lover, a kinsman, and a man of the world as the play progresses.

In his first scenes with Terrell’s Benvolio, I feared Hammond might be reciting Romeo’s lines rather than speaking them conversationally. Nothing sounded false or singsong about Hammond’s delivery, but you could hear Hammond’s attempt to accentuate Shakespeare’s verse, and sometimes his readings did not sound as natural as they would become by the time Mercutio enters.

NealBoxOne thing you know from Hammond’s early exchanges with Terrell is Romeo is a boy in love, ostensibly with Rosaline but really with love itself. This is a lad governed by hormones, and you can see how Romeo wants to satisfy his teenage longing with groans, sighs, kisses, caresses, and coitus.

From the start, this is a loveable Romeo, a passionate juvenile whose wit and intelligence in evident is his badinage and show sensibilities are ready to mature so he can enjoy genuine love while his cohorts, Benvolio and Mercutio, play at such things. As Romeo says when Mercutio mocks his fickle yet constant romantic torment, “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”

Hammond’s Romeo knows wounds. He also knows and expresses the difference between Juliet and Rosaline and the myriad crushes before her. His Romeo, while juvenile, is never callow or puerile. There’s depth to him. You can to listen and watch to find it. Hammond doesn’t display all Romeo is on the outside, but in the course of the play, he lets you see the remarkable variety of this 15-year-old.

Emily Kiser also stresses Juliet just coming to sexual age. Before she meets Romeo, there’s curiosity no real genital stirrings.

Kiser plays this quality of being newly minted as an adult. Her Juliet is as quick of tongue as Hammond’s radio but doesn’t have his leave to wander Verona each night in slumberless sighing over some ingénue that caught his eye and fancy.

This Juliet is willful and can be forward with her nurse and stubborn with her parents, especially when marriage is the topic, marriage to Paris specifically.

Kiser’s Juliet speaks at an excited pace, but the actress knows enough to calm down and give weight to all she expresses from her balcony, whether about Romeo or directly to him. Kiser and Hammond make the sonnet scene a treat in Burns’s production. Attraction grows to deeper sincerity and to love as they present their character’s words and sentiments, and more as their posture shows piqued interest to a moment of flattery or outright lust.

This important scene is playful, dramatic, and satisfyingly conclusive. By the end of it, you have little doubt that what exists between Romeo is the real thing.

Kiser responds well to her nurse’s bawdy jests, new and remembered. She builds a nice relationship with Izard, one that conveys closeness and high regard even if the nurse must at some times obey against her better judgment when Juliet commands. Kiser also clearly shows Juliet’s reluctance in scenes with and about Paris. She does this subtly, in ways you’d have to be looking at her to see, not by girlish petulance or exasperation (as teens would show in a modern play.) She also struggles convincingly with the barrage of news about Tybalt’s death, Romeo killing him, and Romeo’s banishment. Kiser again shows you bits of the 13-year-old and bits of a woman of age who can reason and come to a decision in spite of such conflicting evidence. Her greeting of Romeo when he comes by rope ladder to consummate their marriage neatly shows her torment and her sure sense her place is with the man she loves.

  1. Ashley Izard is wonderful of the nurse, showing wisdom and folk ignorance at various times and always keeping a merry countenance even when vexed with too much walking or Juliet being sharp with her.

Like Hammond and Kiser, Izard’s nurse seems more youthful than her years or complaints about being physically overtaxed would suggest. Izard is consistently excellent, It is good for once to see her have a part in which she can show her range, cleverness, and cunning as an actress. Her nurse is comic but real enough to be a serious and trusted confidante when Juliet needs one.

Izard’s nurse can also handle herself when set upon by the teasing Benvolio and Mercutio. She is one who can combat and compete in such jest, even though she scolds the Capulet servant, Peter, for not coming to her aid.

Alan Brincks must be Quintessences’s secret weapon. He performs at that theater alone and always with a meticulously unfailing sense of character and physical presence.

Brincks plays several roles. He is firm and commanding as Verona’s duke, disgusted at the disturbance the Capulet-Montague rivalry causes. He is marvelous as Mercutio.

The Queen Mab speech Mercutio delivers is one of the most famous and most difficult of all Shakespearean text. It is so detailed in its imagery and so fanciful in its construction, you admire it more while reading it and savoring its wit slowly that by hearing it.

Not when Brincks delivers it. There’s joy, good sport, and clarity in the presentation. The jest works, not only because Brincks realizes Mercutio’s gift of language but because it so teases and touches Hammond’s Romeo, who reacts to it with pouting scorn.

Brincks knows Mercutio. He sees and conveys the high sensibility and plea for common sense behind the character’s rampant merriment. He is also convincing when Mercutio turns hot-headed and resents Tybalt’s verbal assault on and challenge to Romeo. The temper Benvolio mentions earlier shows through general affability Brincks plays and makes all that occurs plausible and more inevitable.

Using guns instead of blades makes the Tybalt-Mercutio-Romeo tumult more intense. It takes some choreographic skill to make it seem as if a gun was fired without intension. Fight director Ian Rose managed that well considering guns can wound at a distance and don’t require proximity to do their harm.

Guns and knowledge of outcome aside, the fight Rose created was intense and kept you going (while in your head, you’re randomly humming “The Jets Song,” “Boy, boy, crazy boy,” and Leonard Bernstein’s unforgettable chords for the fight in “West Side Story.” The leather jacket over the white crew-neck T-shirt Romeo wears in the tomb scene also recalls Bernstein’s musical.).

Gregory Isaac seems to perform from life as Lord Capulet. His movements and gestures match his well-delivered words as he displays the conviviality, congeniality, common sense, and commanding ways of his character. Isaac can be light in discussing Juliet’s marriage and the ball he is coincidentally throwing the night he lights upon wedding her with Paris. He is properly stern with Tybalt when the latter is angered at Romeo’s appearance at the ball while also hinting at the conciliation he hopes Romeo accepting and enjoying his entertainment betoken.

When, in the long run, Juliet refuses Paris, Isaac is both unstoppable and proportionate in Capulet’s rage. His is as good and solid as you’ll see anywhere in this part.

Jahzeel Terrell is a marvelous Benvolio. He exudes the reasonable nature of this young Montague’s character while being able to cut up with Mercutio and tease, even while being sympathetic towards, his cousin Romeo.

Terrell has a natural talent for Shakespearean speech. It noticed it when he played a small role in Philadelphia Shakespeare’s “Henry V” last year. I see him graduating to a Romeo on some future occasion and hope I’m there to witness it.

Anita Holland brings texture to Lady Capulet, showing many moods as mother and as put-upon wife. Holland doubles as Romeo’s lone parent, Lady Montague, and endows the part with dignity and texture.

Josh Carpenter plays Friar Laurence and Tybalt, at one point having to stash his priestly color and enter as Juliet’s fiery cousin seconds about issuing benedicités and other blessings.

Carpenter lets you see Laurence’s thought processes. Shakespeare tells us Laurence’s idea that marrying Romeo and Juliet might still the Capulet-Montague feud, but if the Bard didn’t say a word, you could read that strategy in Carpenter’s face.

Like everyone in this “Romeo and Juliet,” Carpenter registers as young. Semblance of youth helps justify times he may be rash, but it doesn’t hide the goodness or benevolence Laurence represents.

As gentle as Carpenter can be as the friar is how fierce and unquenchable he can be as Tybalt. Carpenter is all rancor when he comes to seek Romeo in Verona’s square where he finds Benvolio and Mercutio awaiting him. Benvolio attempts to ward off trouble, and the Duke’s potential wrath. Tybalt won’t hear of it, and Mercutio joins in the fray as a willing combatant, a choice made necessary by Burn’s’ nominating guns as the weapon and by Tybalt’s insistence on revenge for his wounded pride.

Carpenter was also sweet as the servant, Peter, showing amiable dimwittedness in scenes with the nurse, Romeo, and Capulet.

Sean Close radiates dignity as Paris. He is far from the stiff or conventional character Paris is often portrayed as being. There’s longing and approval when he looks at Juliet. He doesn’t have Romeo’s dash or romantic ardor, but you can tell Close’s Paris would make a suitable husband, if perhaps for someone less spirited and witty as Juliet.

Close does well and makes his presence known in several scenes with the Capulets. He acquits himself well opposite Hammond in the tomb scene where Romeo kills Paris. (Another cavil, even smaller than the last — Paris says he was wounded through the chest The blood on his shirt is to the left side near his hip. A small detail, but noticeable.)

Burns, designing the set, left the space open so that his free-flowing cinematic approach could take hold. He enjoyed, I can tell, using the large TV monitors that compose the back wall of the stage. One touch I liked was turning the seating at the Quintessence towards Germantown Avenue so the audience can see three arches that are part of the Sedgwick Theatre architecture and, in shape and their pinkish color, seem perfect for Renaissance Verona.

“West Side Story” aspects aside, Jane Casenove did well with the costumes. I especially liked her suit for the nurse and the sheath holstering a dagger that is strapped to Juliet’s leg and hidden by her skirt, short as it is. Kiser and Burns use the hidden knife to good effect several times during the production, reinforcing the idea Juliet would rather die than be forced to accept a life she doesn’t want, whether it be with Paris on in a convent.

David Sexton’s lighting helps define the scenes in which Burns features several groupings of people at once. It also creates a fitting mood in the Capulets’ tomb and for Romeo and Juliet’s wedding night.

“Romeo and Juliet” runs through Saturday, November 7, in repertory with Machiavelli’s “The Mandrake,” produced by the Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct, 21 and Nov. 4, 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29, 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6, 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10 and 24, 2 p.m. Saturday, November 7, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11, Oct, 18, and Nov. 1. Tickets range from $34 to $27 and can be obtained by calling 215-987-4450 or by visiting www.quintessencetheatre.org.

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