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Bard's tale of young love is oddly distant

Howard Shapiro of Philadelphia Inquirer

When Romeo (we're talking the real Romeo - balcony, Verona, love-lamed and all) says his spirit "lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts," does he really need to leap as he says the words lifts me?

And what about Juliet's dad? Sure, he's exasperated because his daughter refuses to accept the marriage he's arranged to the noble but passionless Paris - wouldn't you be, if you'd gone to all that trouble? She'd better be in church for the nuptials, he commands, as Juliet sobs at his feet, or "I will drag thee on a hurdle thither." On the words drag thee, is it incumbent that Papa Capulet yank the hapless girl across the stage?

At the Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival these evenings, artistic director Carmen Khan's rendition of Romeo and Juliet is unquestionably entertaining - as well as gallingly literal, as if we just can't be trusted to get it through the words. And the words themselves filter through the cast in ways that occasionally turns the production into melodrama.

That sort of overreaching won't give us a Romeo and Juliet that breaks our hearts in the second half, when the play's tone shifts from love-struck to just plain struck. As Romeo and Juliet meet their fates, we're onlookers, but little more.

The arms-length effect separates us from really feeling the story in this production (which by month's end will run in repertory with Pericles, Prince of Tyre, a Shakespeare romance the festival maintains has not been staged in the city for at least a century and a half). After all, we've been watching a Romeo who dances giddily around the stage in the first half as though he's just won a night-vision medicine ball game atop a field of hot coals on Jackass.

At one point, an excited and lithe David Raphaely, who plays Romeo, even does a few-second pole dance on an archway column. Raphaely is an altogether too-cute Romeo - his is an age-appropriate portrayal, you might say, given that the Bard wrote the lovebirds as middle-teens. Even so, he comes off as childlike and without nuance, not the guy who would make Juliet swoon from a balcony window.

Nary a Raphaely line arrives cooked less than well-done, and words have super-oomphed stresses: He's in lovvvv-uh! And what about that accent? The "r"s are from somewhere between Boston and Yorkshire, the "o"s are often pure Valley Boy. Aside from Juliet, Raphaely's is the only character who doesn't speak plain old unaffected Yankee English (although he does throw it in, perhaps unaware, for stretches).

Juliet, at least, comes by an accent naturally; she's Melissa Dunphy, and she's from Australia. She plays from the heart, and also delivers the cast's best line readings of Elizabethan English, although they become too rapid-fire in the second half for us to appreciate the play's beautiful language. (This is a quick R&J - at about two hours, 15 minutes - with smart cuts in the script.)

The lovers are backed by a solid cast, with a Mercutio (Damon Bonetti) whose agile performance survives the guy antics the production has forced on him; a well-meaning Friar Lawrence (Buck Schirner); a clamorous Tybalt (Andrew Gorell); and a blathering nurse (the wonderfully evocative JJ Van Name). There's high-spirited swordplay and a nice little dinner-party dance scene, and even with visible cracks in the production, the framework survives intact.

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