'Romeo and Juliet: A Requiem' at People's Light: A good try at reimagining a classic, but lacks the original's power

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The cast of “Romeo and Juliet: A Requiem,” through May 27 at People’s Light in Malvern.

One of the great joys of seeing productions at People’s Light is that their shows require little buy-in. Whether a children’s panto, Shakespearean comedy, or a modern drama by Tracy Letts, their consummate professionalism immediately establishes a captivating mise-en-scène that suspends any wayward disbelief.

And so it is with Romeo and Juliet: A Requiem, a tinkering from the adults’ point of view of Shakespeare’s tragedy. A year after the events of that play, the audience gathers around a courtyard in Verona — simply constructed by James F. Pyne Jr. as a lawn of artificial grass flanked by tiers of stone blocks. Lady Montague (Terri Lamm) sits at one end of the yard, her presence grounding the atmosphere by giving us the lens of a grieving mother, still confused and crumbled by her son’s untimely death.

That initial imagery compels, but the remainder of the play often struggles to achieve anywhere near the power of the Bard’s original. Zak Berkman and Samantha Reading reconstructed the text for six characters: the Nurse, the Friar, and Lady and Lords Montague and Capulet, letting the older cast of Shakespeare’s play reflect on the feud that ruined their families.

In that sense, this Requiem succeeds. Berkman and Reading’s simplified storyline shows clearly that circumstances compounded childish emotions and forced Romeo and Juliet onto their tragic course. The enmity of the parents in their feud, and the meddling of the Friar (Graham Smith) and Nurse (Marcia Saunders), brought about disaster. Smith’s deft portrayal shows that reflection often invites a self-righteousness that casts off responsibility, and Stephen Novelli (as Lord Capulet) evokes great sympathy as a man trying to ensure his lineage through arranged marriage.

But these insights barely pepper this 90-minute retelling. Without the fever of the titular characters to drive the plot, this reenactment often feels like a dry recounting of events, and with the older characters playing their impassioned children, reminds unfortunately of the movie Cocoon.

Reading’s direction finds moments of needed comedy, and Lamm and Jeanne Sakata bring great charm to the balcony scene, despite odd blocking that requires speaking many of the lines across a wide courtyard. But this Requiem never settles scores, lays nothing to rest, and fails to validate itself as either public spectacle (for the audience of Verona) or as therapeutic device for the mourning parents.

Theater

Romeo and Juliet: A Requiem

    • Through May 27 at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road, Malvern. Tickets: $39-$89.40. Information: 610-644-3500, peopleslight.org.