Love story or requiem? This Romeo & Juliet is a bit of both

SUBMITTED PHOTOS
Scenes from “Romeo and Juliet - A Requiem” now onstage at People’s Light in Malvern through May 27. For tickets call 610-644-3500 or go to peopleslight.org
SUBMITTED PHOTOS Scenes from “Romeo and Juliet - A Requiem” now onstage at People’s Light in Malvern through May 27. For tickets call 610-644-3500 or go to peopleslight.org

if you go

“Romeo and Juliet - A Requiem” is on the Leonard C. Haas Stage at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road in Malvern through May 27. For tickets call 610-644-3500 or go to peopleslight.org

The new People’s Light production, “Romeo and Juliet - A Requiem” approaches Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of young love with such good intentions that this moving but uncertain piece of theater might be mistaken for a gedenkschrift.

Gedenkschrift! Bless you! Seriously, it’s a German word for a posthumous collection of the writings of a famous and/or respected person. When preparing such a tribute to a famous writer, selection and sequence is as important as content. Recalling the person’s life and character is a task of memory as well as reading. By choosing memory and recollection as the way to reshape the text of one of the Bard’s most popular works, this play’s creators chose homage to Will power over more risky experimentation. The result is great dramatic language yoked to the service of a less than clear premise.

People’s Light Resident Director Samantha Reading and Producing Director Zak Berkman are the “co-conceivers” of this setting in the city of Verona, one year after Romeo and Juliet have died. Their families the Montagues and Capulets, still “marvelous distemper’d” have not truly ended their deadly feud and are ordered by Escalus, the Prince of Verona to appear in a “public arena” before the citizens of Verona (you, dear audience) to “remember and re-live the events of their children’s final fateful days.”

How reliving the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers is going to help reconcile the two families and bring peace to their turbulent city is not clear but it surely seems, watching the seemingly reluctant “players” glowering at each other as they come onstage, that the results may do more harm than good.

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Still, they have all come “on pain of death” — Lord and Lady Capulet (Stephen Novelli and Jeanne Sakata), Lord Montague (Brian Anthony Wilson) assisted by the spirit of the late Lady Montague (Teri Lamm) who died of grief during the original play, as well as the Friar (Graham Smith) and the Nurse (Marcia Saunders). All duly appear playing not only their own parts in the tragedy but those of the slain youths (Mercutio, Tybalt and Count Paris) and the two young lovers as well. Dialog and the timeline of Shakespeare’s play is rearranged, condensed and run through the personal filters of the five surviving protagonists and Lady Montague.

The “public arena” of Verona appears as a square of astroturf and raised platforms that looks like a rejected proposal for a 1990’s ESPN studio set. It suggests a dreamscape rather than a Renaissance meeting place. On what appear to be the graves of the six slain characters are different articles of clothing the actors don when they assume the roles of the departed.

Each actor in this self-conscious play-within-a-play portray themselves as well as others as the action of the previous year unfolds and we wait for the moment that suggests this mutual recognition of each family’s intolerance will begin a healing process in Verona.

The nearly two and half hours of the original play are condensed into a compact ninety minutes with 21 scenes that retain the core of the play’s action and, hopefully, those seeds of reconciliation. Watching these proud and grieving adults playing both themselves and their children is the best part of this unconventional staging.

Again we witness Romeo’s infatuation and self-centered pursuit of the fair Juliet as families and friends try to prevent the match. Fortunately, in this retelling the feisty side of Juliet is not lost, the essence of a very young but remarkable girl who, as critic Kenneth Tynan wrote “is impatient and mettlesome, proud and vehement…from her first meeting with Romeo…she is no novice but an initiate in the stately game of love”

A close familiarity with the original play is very helpful to follow this retelling but not necessary. Thanks to the experienced cast of People’s Light company members and the guest artists the shaky premise of the play is soon rendered secondary as the audience witnesses the passion and humor that Wilson and Lamm bring to portraying Romeo and Juliet, the almost palpable waves of regret and anger Novelli exudes as Lord Capulet attempting to secure his daughter’s future, the regret and sadness Saunders and Sakata show with their eyes and posture as the Nurse and Lady Capulet try to guide Juliet’s fateful choices. These intense performances are enhanced by Christopher Colucci’s evocative music between scenes.