Theatre Review: People’s Light Explores Shakespearean Aftermath with “Romeo & Juliet: A Requiem”

Actors on a green carpeted stage.

For nearly as long as people have been performing Shakespeare, people have been putting their own spin on Shakespeare. If a straightforward Othello isn’t your style, perhaps your interest can be piqued by a version set against the backdrop of high-stakes prep basketball. And for every thoughtful and innovative reimagining of the Bard’s classics, there are dozens of sloppy retreads.

Theatre fans in the Philadelphia area can rest assured that People’s Light’s production of “Romeo & Juliet: A Requiem” falls squarely in the former category.

Conceived by Samantha Reading and Zak Berkman, both mainstays at the Malvern theatre company, the play mixes new writing with Shakespeare’s original text to imagine Verona a year after the star-crossed lovers’ deaths. By decree of law, the heads of the Capulet and Montague households — along with the Friar and the Nurse — must recreate the events of their romance to better understand the tragedy.\

The small cast provides an interesting dynamic: the actors cross family, age and gender barriers to play multiple characters each. And not only is one actor responsible for several roles; several actors inhabit single roles throughout. The players — Brian Anthony Wilson and Teri Lamm as Lord and Lady Montague, Stephen Novelli and Jeanne Sakata as Lord and Lady Capulet, Marcia Saunders as the Nurse, and Graham Smith as the Friar — are more than up for the task. Each finds a moment to be powerful, vulnerable, poignant and funny. Special note should be given to Williams’ moments as the lively, lovestruck Romeo and Saunders’ deft handling of her comedic base character.

Actors on a green carpeted stage.
The cast of Romeo and Juliet: A Requiem (Photo by Mark Garvin)

While the production leans heavily on Shakespeare’s text, Reading’s additions fit well into the canon, approximating the meter if not outright matching it. And the context she provides, particularly in a speech by Lord Capulet about his duty as a “careful father,” is welcome.

The set design, by James F. Pyne, Jr., is sparse but beautiful, suggesting a noble graveyard but avoiding morbidity and allowing the actors to move about freely through the “in the round” stage. The costumes, designed by Marla Jurglanis, cleverly lets actors swap parts quickly and easily: by adding a cape or shawl, anyone can become Mercutio or Tybalt. Likewise, the sound and lighting design, by Christopher Colucci and Deborah Constantine respectively, add an unobtrusive air of class to the proceedings.

At 90 minutes with no intermission, the play is the perfect length for a quick night out, especially for those who don’t live close to Malvern but who want to treat themselves to an evening of theatre done well in a terrific venue.

“Romeo & Juliet: A Requiem” runs most days of the week through May 27 at People’s Light’s Leonard C. Haas Stage. Tickets can be obtained at http://www.peopleslight.org or by calling the box office at 610-644-3500.

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