Romeo and Juliet
Ali Ahn and William Jackson Harper make an attractive and passionate pair in the title roles of Joanna Settle's contemporary Shakespeare on the Sound production of the Bard's tragedy.
Settle has also come upon a clever take on Shakespeare tragedy, by setting it as a play-within-a-play. Her notion is that each year a group of pals have a play-reading an at a patio party given by a married couple (Ahn and Tony Torn). This time, the wife has assigned the parts, thereby pairing herself with a Romeo not essayed by her hubby.
Placing the action initially in a contemporary setting -- the actors wear attractive summer togs supplied by Tilly Grimes -- lends the script immediacy, but it also introduces an element that ultimately goes unresolved. When Torn's hubby learns he's not to play the romantic lead opposite his wife, he evinces annoyance. That her Romeo is the younger and sexier Harper implies at the very least the strong possibility of jealousy.
However, once the revelers are taken over by their Shakespeare roles, whatever might have been brought to the surface about discord in the marital alliance is dropped. This gives Settle's framing device something of a half-baked feeling. In a less refreshing fulfillment of Shakespeare's intentions, this might be a genuine problem, but it definitely isn't when Settle and her mostly excellent performers are having such a swell time doing what they're doing.For example, there's an irresistible balcony scene with Juliet, although precocious beyond her almost-14 years, running giddily across Laura Jellinek's set and Romeo wooing her from a buckling riser smack-dab in the middle of the rapt audience.
As Mercutio, Matt Citron delivers the Queen Mab speech with such gritty detail that the dreams of which he's speaking practically materialize. David Cale's Friar Lawrence, who gives the impression of being a clergyman from the 'hood, is another asset, as is Chinasa Ogbuagu, making the nurse a clear-eyed and loving caretaker.
Torn is a more bellowing Capulet than is ideal, but he does bring a frightening fury to his confrontation with Juliet over his insistence that she marry Paris (Damian Lemar Hudson, not bad himself).
To help create the modern-day framework, Stew and Heidi Rodewald have provided music sometimes played and sung enthusiastically by the actors and sometimes piped in by sound designers Obadiah Eaves and Jessica Paz. Stew has a way of attaching melodies to the brain, and he's done it again, notably with a setting of the play's opening speech about "In Fair Verona," one of the many sound ideas in this production.