By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
At its core, Romeo and Juliet, currently receiving a conceptually odd but effective treatment by Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, is all about the irresistible-force paradox: What happens when such a force meets an immovable object? If the force is teenage hormones and the object entrenched parents, the result, as observed by every English-speaking generation since 1597, is guaranteed to be messy.
But this Romeo and Juliet, messy in almost all the wrong ways, somehow gets its young lovers and their terrifying frenzies just right. JJ Van Name's Nurse and James Tolbert's Friar Laurence aren't helping the pair out of a sense of empathy, but rather just to get them to calm down. By the time Laurence smacks Romeo a little too hard, the kid has earned it.
This production's troubles are mostly related to the design team. Its place and time is poorly defined - my best guess is that it occurs roughly now, and possibly in an urban setting, though Dirk Durossette's gray palette, red curlicued balcony, and chain-link fences could be anywhere. Contest-winning sonnets recited between scenes are sweet, but they detract from director David O'Connor's themes. Vickie Esposito's costumes look cheesy: ill-fitting, fast-fashion stretch pieces. And aside from the bass thrum Romeo and his pals hear outside the Capulets' house party, Michael Kiley's sound design, especially during the boys' battles, recalls synthesizer-filled street-fighting video games, not a bad joke, but wrong for O'Connor's tone.
Maria Shaplin's lighting, however, fights this chaos, suffusing the exterior of the party with a come-hither red, or bathing the lovers in a soft glow. And when this production succeeds, everything else becomes background noise. J Hernandez's hair-trigger Mercutio and Dan McLaughlin's bro-style Tybalt operate beyond reason and impulse control. And even if Victoria Rose Bonito's Juliet and Akeem Davis' Romeo look slightly too old, their burn threatens everything in its path and frightens the adults. Only Isaiah Ellis' mild Benvolio resists being swept up in everyone's passions, and once Mercutio swats him to the floor, even he succumbs.
Through May 18 at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom St. Tickets: $10-$35. 215-496-8001 or www.phillyshakespeare.org