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'Brilliant rethinking’ of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ at the Wilma Theater

Bravely experimental theater brings the star-crossed lovers into this millennium, complete with disco ball, hip-hop, and a trenchant message for right now.

Matteo Scammell and Taysha Marie Canales in "Romeo and Juliet," through Feb. 9 at the Wilma Theater.
Matteo Scammell and Taysha Marie Canales in "Romeo and Juliet," through Feb. 9 at the Wilma Theater.Read moreJohanna Austin,

Romeo and Juliet, on through Feb. 9 at the Wilma Theater, projects Shakespeare’s most popular tragedy into the 21st century, as a play for the young.

It’s also, make no mistake, about walls. In this brilliant rethinking, director Blanka Zizka, crew, and cast, especially the Wilma Hothouse gang, ransack the performance arts, existentialist theater, and 21st-century pop, bravely slashing the text for a new Romeo and Juliet.

Our first wall, in Matt Saunders’ marvelous design, is a curtain of close-hanging golden filaments, seemingly dense enough to block sight. Yet, back-lit, it is revealed as diaphanous and penetrable.

“Walls” like this are wheeled on frames over a bare stage, to suggest mansions, friar’s cells, crypts, partitions, and enclosures “real” and imaginary.

At the balcony scene, there’s no balcony, just another golden wall, over which Juliet – a mid-teen bursting with heedless energy, as played by wonderful, wide-eyed Taysha Marie Canales – peers, fearful and love-struck. Upstage, there’s a too, too solid wall.

A chorus of talented UArts players begins with a pounding chant of keywords: family, blood, war, and, repeatedly, hate.

Mercutio – rubber-limbed, comically authoritative Anthony Martinez-Briggs – tries to rap but keeps getting drowned out. His audible raps refer to Beyoncé, Lil’ Kim, Grace Jones.

In a production generally bent on distancing us from action and characters, we are most distanced from Romeo (Matteo Scammell). Even his mates seem not to get him. Flights of fancy ever interrupted, he can’t be reached.

Not so Canales as Juliet: I loved her matter-of-fact reading of “If they do see you they will murder you.”

Krista Apple gets not only laughs but also brilliant clarity and range out of the Nurse. Lindsay Smiling is a kush-smoking, regretful Friar Lawrence with an islands accent.

And here’s to Suli Holum as a bitter Lady Capulet, hating on her husband (burly Steven Rishard) and his every overbearing move.

The second half doesn’t sustain the muscular momentum of the first. That could be partly intentional: Zizka wants no sentimental momentum. Her cuts pump energy into some parts and drain it from others: Gone is much of the poetry, the sense of fate tightening down on the young lovers.

Focus falls on Juliet more than on Romeo, on her family tragedy rather than his personal one. Great, but that second half act cries out to be revisited.

Gracie Martin and band (Matthew Mastronardi, Jordan McCree, and Evan Raines) enter at various moments. Her songs are in oblique conversation with the play (one very fine line among several: “I know what I want and know that I’m losing it”).

Gently may I suggest that, especially in the last half-hour, the musicians enter once or twice too often and are experienced as a delay.

At the lovers’ last parting, Romeo, moving through shimmering wall after shimmering wall, ghosts himself away.

The finale brings the boldest change. In the play as written, the adults of Verona draw a lesson from all the carnage.

That’s all gone here. No lesson, only the kids. They look at the bodies and reject the whole mess. “What are we doing here?” they ask, and help one another over that big, solid wall in back.

Martin and band tell us that love is “a waste” if all it is is “a wall to keep the truth away.” Score.


Romeo and Juliet. Through Feb. 9 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. Tickets: $10-$48. Information: 215-546-7824,