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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Romeo and Juliet — Wilma Theater

Forget the bold but unnecessary opening that has a stomping group of chanters pulsating through a mostly alphabetized litany of key words and themes from “Romeo and Juliet,” punctuating every second, third, or fourth word with “hate,” so that word dominates the threnody and makes the mood and attitude of this time in Verona clear to all who pay attention.

Forget also the imposed Brechtian ending, which features one of many good songs by the engaging Gracie Martin, but forces that worst of all things, a moral, on a production that could have brought lights down on the perfect emotional note and given tragedy, for once, the combined pity and terror it is supposed to elicit.

Forget these things, the self-conscious theatricality of the beginning and the pedantic, if purposeful, moodkiller at the end, and run to the Wilma before February 9 to see one amazingly immediate and dramatically brilliant “Romeo and Juliet.”

Blanka Zizka is so steeped in being new and theatrical these days, she may not realize, or maybe does, that the fire in this “Romeo and Juliet” is not in its extra trappings but in the pure way the story of the famous star-crossed lovers and their contentious community unfolds.

Zizka may want to be Brechtian. She may want to infuse current commentary into classic. Heck, why not? Done right, that keeps a classic fresh. The irony, or calculated result — How would I know? — here is some extras, such as Martin’s topical songs, enhance but the real excitement comes from elemental Shakespeare and how vividly Zizka creates a pick-your-era, any-era Verona that breathes full life and passionate fire into a time-honored the tale, the power and entertainment value of which is often taken for granted.

It isn’t periodic shouts of “hate” or modern folk tune that harken back to Donald Trump and his wall — an idea that haunts more than one current production (“The Niceties,” “Julius Caesar” at the Media, and “74 Seconds…to Judgment”) — that make the Wilma’s “Romeo and Juliet” soar. It’s how believable Matteo Scammell and Taysha Marie Canales, two of our region’s best and brightest, exude living, thinking characters whose words sound as contemporary and spontaneous as they are poetic and whose actions and expressions are those of lovers in ecstasy and turmoil. It’s the high heels and haughty attitude of Suli Holum’s Lady Capulet, the Main Line snoot of Verona if there ever was one, languidly but pointedly leading her daughter to a desired destiny. It’s the contrasting but perfectly meshing authority of Steven Rishard, whose Capulet illustrates humanity by being temperamental and intractable at one instance and mild and diplomatic in another. Rishard’s performance encapsulates Verona, unbridled anger and rational coolness co-existing until one boils to supersede the others.

It’s the always remarkable Justin Jain being brash, feral,  and unforgiving as a suave but rash and infuriated Tybalt. It’s Kevin Meehan’s a lot less than saintly Benvolio. It’s Krista Apple’s younger than usual, sometimes wise, sometimes dotty nurse.

It’s Keith Conallen making parts pay even though they beneath his scope and range. It’s Matt Donzella living up to the nurse’s appellation, “a man of wax,” as the County Paris. It’s even the loopy but effective Rastafarian take Lindsay Smiling gives to the chill-I-have-this-covered Friar Laurence.

Most of all, it’s the exciting, joyful, life-affirming Mercutio of Anthony Martinez-Briggs, who makes the “Queen Mab” speech, always better read than heard, sing and shine with its wit and who makes his taunts to lovesick Romeo boyish and in the tone of a friend who has the right and duty to gnaw at a buddy’s itch. Martinez-Briggs zings with confidence. He celebrates existence. He’s fun! Liberties he may take here and there with text are welcome. His Mercutio is the comfortable, animated being he ought to be, and that you never get to see. I cannot think of another Mercutio who lived up to Shakespeare’s creation. Remembering “Passing Strange” and seeing Martinez-Brigg’s Mercutio makes me want to see his name on many a cast list for many seasons.

Zizka’s Verona seethes and rages. It goes on with an urban rhythm that seems right and propelling. In a word, it’s “natural.”

Yes, “natural” in the way gardens and National Parks that are manicured, landscaped, cleaned up, and put into a designed order are but natural nonetheless. The Wilma’s “Romeo and Juliet” puts you in a tangible city, with genuine people who deal with genuine predicaments. Even Laurence’s potions do not seem as conveniently available as usual. Zizka gives us a “Romeo and Juliet” that shows people living and makes you believe they exist rather than being figures reciting immortal lines on a stage-turned museum.

This is a “Romeo and Juliet” and commands listening and following the story instead of taking in enough to individualize a production before you sit back and rely on what you already know.

Besides honesty, the kind of behavioral truth that makes a play so much more accessible, you have those extras I mentioned, choreographed scene changes of interesting cubes that take place as Martin provides another of her provocative songs. This is a production that moves. It has graceful flow between sequences, commentary that doesn’t quell emotion, as the ending does, and direct, unadulterated storytelling only made better by the skills of Zizka’s expressive, inventive cast.

The streets of Verona are a brawl waiting to happen. Benign characters carry knives and don’t mind flashing them at the slightest perceived slur. As I said, Verona is like Rishard’s Lord Capulet. Even when it’s peaceful, something is roiling underneath, and occasions for affront and fighting are looked for. Temper rules while the “tempered” is ephemeral.

Indifferent to all of this is Scammell’s Romeo.

Of course, all Romeos are supposed to be indifferent, or at least oblivious as clouded by hormones, but Scammell is. He is lost in his amour du jour. He has no time for the pettiness of Verona. He’s aware of it, but it’s nothing to him. Rosaline and, soon, Juliet, command his time and cogitation.

Scammell is the late adolescent whose heart, and romantic leanings, match what might be happening in nether regions. In this production, he doesn’t say, “They jest as scars that never felt a wound,” but he conveys it as he lollingly dismisses Mercutio and Benvolio and their jokes at love. (Zizka also eliminates the scene in which Romeo reads the guest list to Capulet’s illiterate servant. This means Benvolio has to guess Rosaline is his cousin’s pre-occupation somewhere off-stage. This is not a lapse, or a cavil. The excision won’t matter to anyone who doesn’t know the play word-in, word-out, but I decided to be snooty and mention it.)

Scammell is the dreamboat who dreams of the dreamy. He is a lad who dwells on his affection. One great part of his performance is how he lets you know Juliet is not of the casual, fleeting ilk of Rosaline. No, from the start, she transcends infatuation and is Romeo’s obvious attraction, his obvious love.

There’s energy and a sense of the extemporaneous in Scammell’s reading. As is true throughout Zizka’s production, even when and where she purposely interrupts so cold thought can replace deep emotion, Scammell makes all real and immediate. You feel for this Romeo. You know he’s deeper than Benvolio and more enlisted in feelings than Mercutio, especially Martinez- Briggs’s merry guy.

Taysha Marie Canales takes a different tack to arrive at the same place as Scammell’s Romeo in terms of involvement in Verona’s madness.

Juliet, age 13, is aware of the tension around her. She lives with her father and Tybalt. She is lost more in her own thoughts, and her own girlish romances, without the particular subject of desire Romeo has. Canales’s Juliet seems wise beyond years, bookish, too mature to wander the street with a knife or get too vexed if someone bites a thumb at her.

As Shakespeare, via Lady Capulet and the nurse, tells us, 13 is not too young to become a wife. It is considered a perfect time. Juliet just hasn’t found a lad to make her focus her longings on anyone specific.

Then along comes Romeo.

Just as Scammell did, Canales shows the swoon that comes seeing Romeo for the first time.

He’s a curiosity, and not because he’s a Montague, which Juliet doesn’t know yet. It’s because Scammell gives Romeo an easy as opposed to self-conscious swagger, and does well with Shakespeare’s great arguments when it comes to copping a kiss. He’s enough to get a girl thinking. Canales in a woman just a boy might want. Especially when she shows Juliet’s depth and ability, endowed by Shakespeare, to counter every gambit with one just as witty.

Shakespeare gives Scammell and Canales their words and cues. He gives every actor playing Romeo and Juliet the same words and cues. Scammell and Canales make something of them, something that doesn’t sit on a page or vegetate in the most beautiful of verse. These children speak. They express. They bring, for the ninetieth time, I know, their characters to vibrant, credible, creditable life.

An interpolated song here and there cannot intrude or interrupt what Scammell, Canales, Shakespeare, and Zizka create. What’s established lingers. Martin’s commentary, in context or not, is an interlude, a pause that refreshes but does not diminish the moment or what Scammell, Canales, Martinez-Briggs, Meehan, and others have done with it.

Now for a cavil. No, this is a bitter complaint. Bitterer and bitterer considering I think Urban Outfitters is almost up there with Microsoft as the most evil company on Earth. One reason Juliet might notice Romeo may not be his sexy ease, but his horrible clothes.

But for Romeo, Benvolio, and Mercutio, everyone on the Wilma stage is dressed in some semblance of formal wear for the grand Capulet ball. Those three wander in like Dead End kids who can’t tell a fancy party from a pinball arcade.

The white T-shirt, black jeans, and goldish sneakers Vasilija Zivanic chooses for Romeo is perfect for the daytime, but if he’s going to crash and fleer at the Capulet ‘do’ and stave off being noticed as a Montague, don’t you think he could put on a jacket. Benvolio is worse. His skateboard-boy outfit isn’t good enough for the street let alone for a ball. Mercutio’s togs are good enough for a day of brawling and making fun of all around him, but Mercutio is noble. He’s kin to the Prince. He’d know better.

Zivanic also fails Juliet. The dress she gives Canales is easily the ugliest in the shop. Unless it’s meant to be some sort of rebellion against Holum’s Givenchy-oriented Lady Capulet, it doesn’t seem the kind of the garment the good lady would let her daughter wear. The word that comes to mind is “shmata.”

Good. That’s done. Moving on, clothes don’t matter much because Scammell and Canales keep them from mattering. So do Meehan and Martinez-Briggs. Their performances belie any notion that clothes make the man. Being real and direct does.

Scene in and scene out, there’s much to recommend Zizka’s production. As seasons progress, I think more of what the director wants to accomplish at the Wilma is coming to form. This “Romeo and Juliet” has an excess or two, particularly at its start and finish, but it demonstrates the raw, visceral tone I see Zizka looking to achieve while remaining poetic and true to its story, something that didn’t happen in lauded, but for me disappointing, stagings of “Antigone” and “Blood Wedding” and worked most profoundly in last year’s “Passing Strange.”

Gracie Martin’s songs captured my interest. I mourn the general loss of lyric writing, and Martin made me listen and frequently admire. My objection to the song at the end is not about the song as much as leaving things theatrically alone instead of spoiling smartly achieved emotion with Brechtian bilge.

I enjoyed the versatility and kinetic geometrics of Matt Saunders’s set. I also adored the thin gold spaghetti curtains that did so much to camouflage or frame. When Romeo is writing around Friar Laurence’s cell like a prisoner reacting to his new home of a cage, Saunders’s set becomes a character. Once more, the motion of bringing pieces on and off goes along with the flow I see Zizka establishing in her shows.

“Romeo and Juliet” runs through Saturday, February 9, at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (Feb. 3). Tickets are $48 and can be obtained by calling 215-546-7824 or visiting www.wilmatheater.org.

 

 

 

 

 

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