Romeo and Juliet

rj-431x500In the close quarters of Little Italy, old New York is an appropriate volatile and steamy backdrop for the feuding families and young love in PICT Classic Theater’s new production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, playing through Nov. 4 at the Fred Rogers Studio, WQED.

Like “fair Verona”, there’s little room for a Capulet not to bump into a Montague on a hot day, igniting a knife fight. The subtext in Alan Stanford’s production is that these families may be, you know “families”–perhaps immigrants who moved from Italy and Sicily to find their way through whatever means in America.

The concepts plays well, especially on Jonmichael Bohach’s versatile and multi-purpose set, which spans the room’s width and height. His scenic elements conjure the streets of New York, an outdoor cafe, the play’s interior settings, and even the infrastructure of an elevated train–heard once as a critical climax of street violence erupt.

As the show opens, Stanford welcomes the audience and segues nicely into the prologue, describing the story of his own production, one he contends “everyone should watch now and again–especially if you have children.” His cast of 17 reminds us of the urgency at every turn. These outstanding artists comprise a solid and entertaining crew.

“Two households both alike in dignity.” The hot headed young people on the steamy streets of downtown Manhattan bite their thumbs and rough each other up. Even the women get into the action as they try to quell the violence.

Adrianne Knapp’s Juliet captures the innocence and yearning of a girl dreaming of true love and womanhood. She’s idealist yet dreamy–absolutely the smart Juliet of Shakespeare’s play and, here, savvy in the times her story is now set. Knapp is versatile and shifts her thoughts and moods thoroughly as she considers her options at every turn.

Her Romeo is sweet-faced Dylan Marquis Meyers, every bit the fickle and eager teen. He conveys a resolve that overshadows his tears upon his banishment. Meyers is both endearing and engaging. His smart Romeo is strong in his resolve and a fine match for Knapp.

The couple is sweet, lovely and empathic as they are not unlike kids through the ages, experiencing first loves that are powerful, hurtful and full of anticipated joy. By the play’s end they have grown up and take their fates into their own hands, recognizing what they cannot change and resigned to how their community and family have essentially turned against them.

Stanford supports Shakespeare’s lesson: feuds and misunderstanding over even the least important things can take our time and take lives. Adults too often shut out the pain of young people with tragic results. Romeo and Julietremains a timeless journey through family dynamics, parental posturing, pride, and stubbornness.

Martin Giles swaggers and asserts machismo as Lord Capulet, running the household and eventually steamrolling Juliet to marry Count Paris. He’s boisterous and one of the flames that ignite the ongoing conflicts. You sense he was likely on his good behavior when the Prince called him in while muttering about the Montagues on the way out. However he displays wisdom when he tells Tybalt not to cause a scene when Romeo crashes his party. There are important business and agreements on the street and there’s no time to disrupt them with petty arguments.

His nemesis Montague is Matthew J. Rush, who plays Romeo’s father as less impulsive, balancing the hot Capulets.

Shammen McCune is Juliet’s determined mother, a solid presence in any production, including as Jocasta in PICT’s Oedipus. She journeys from calculating in her plans her daughter’s courtship to Paris to frustrated angry as Juliet defies her father’s order to marry. McCune carves a classic figure, perhaps someone who moved from Italy for a new life in America to be ruled by family protocols and patriarchy. In this setting, Juliet’s life would not have been much better, but Lady Capulet at least has the security her husband dictates.

It’s Lamar K. Cheston as Romeo’s friend Benvolio who takes the reins as a young man perhaps wise beyond his years. Cheston, most recently seen as in the title role of Henry V at Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks and at PICT in Oedipus, brings thoughtful choices to a character that if often less integral than in this production. He keeps things together when all others are awry and he reports on the misdeeds of the streets. Cheston is a strong and focused young player from whom we may expect much. In this sequel to this Italian-American story, we see him as the >consigliere advising Montague.

PICT vets Karen Baum and James FitzGerald are the Nurse and Friar Laurence, confidants of the young lovers, but forces who contribute to their downfall. Their good intentions fail, of course. Baum draws a nurse who is practical, knows her place and has some fun with the comic bit. Moreover, she looks out for her girl and provides structure in the unstable Capulet household. A delightful jewel in every cast, Baum brings authentic care and wisdom to the unpredictable sea of fighting and family dynamics. Her nurse is spot on.

Likewise, FitzGerald’s stalwart Friar is essential alongside Romeo. Bringing depth and craft to every performance, FitzGerald is always wonderful to watch and a joy for listening to the poetry of this play.

Art Peden debuts at PICT as the Prince, presiding over the neighborhood more as moderator than ruler. He brings focus and reason and is an artist we’ll look forward to following here. Jonathan Visser, always compelling, is Paris, here an attentive and mature courtier.

The fiery Tybalt is Daniel Pivovar, insisting on the brawl. Alec Silberblatt is a drunken Mercutio–taking his bawdy tales and gestures to the max.

The always charming Matt Henderson is Sampson and Pete, drawing giggles as he wrestles with lists and street bullies. Eric Freitas portrays both Friar John and Abram in his first PICT appearance. The strong women of the neighborhood, Sarah Carleton and Sandi Oshaben apt support, evening jumping into the fray as needed. Christopher Collier appears as Gregory and the Apothecary in his first PICT outing.

Aside from bawdy bits, this is a wonderful “first Shakespeare” for all ages. Mercutio’s gestures are no less than what we see daily in media or on the street, so don’t hesitate to bring some young people to this engaging classic–and to talk about the show before and after.

PICT Classic Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet runs at WQED’s Fred Rogers Studio through November 4. For tickets and more information click here.