Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Language Rooms and Romeo and Juliet

J. Paul Nicholas, Peter Jay Fernandez and Sevan Greene
Language Rooms covers a lot of ground. It's a satire of the War on Terror, filled with government-approved torturers who tell suspects things like "First of all, I'm sorry to have to talk to you when you're half-naked." It's also an interesting exploration of the immigrant experience, telling the story of one young man who doesn't feel at home anywhere. And it's a dark comedy, wringing laughs and heartbreak from some semi-taboo topics. Yussef El Guindi's play (a world premiere at the Wilma Theater) is a clever, provocative examination of some vital issues.

Ahmed and Nasser work for an unnamed U.S. government agency in a place known only as "the compound," somewhere on foreign soil. They're the only Muslim interrogators at the compound, so they're especially valuable—but Ahmed doesn't feel secure. He's worried that secret surveillance cameras are watching his every move. He's worried that he does not impress his boss. He's worried about his role in the compound and his place in society. But just when Ahmed is starting to find his footing, a new suspect shows up—and it's someone Ahmed wasn't expecting. It's Ahmed's job to break the suspect, but this suspect, well-meaning though he may be, could end up breaking Ahmed.

Under Blanka Zizka's focused direction, Language Rooms seems ridiculous at first, but as the absurdities pile up, the stakes get higher, and the tone gradually becomes chilling. El Guindi uses Ahmed's violent profession to show the toll society takes on him, wearing him down until he's left with no one to turn to for solace. There are a few missteps, notably a bizarre scene where Ahmed hallucinates, and a finale that's too somber for its own good. But, overall, this is a gripping and witty play that begins by making political points and ends up making personal ones.

It's also a play that, thanks to Zizka's vision, becomes more and more claustrophobic. Ola Maslik's set design is mostly in white, a sterile environment that contrasts with the often ugly events that take place within its walls. Act two takes place inside one small room in the middle of an expansive stage; the characters end up feeling trapped in more ways than one.

Sevan Greene is terrific as Ahmed, scoring both laughs and sympathy. He gets able support from J. Paul Nicholas as Nasser and Nasser Faris as the star suspect. (The only female cast member, Julienne Hanzelka Kim, does a good job with a part that's far too small and undeveloped.) But Peter Jay Fernandez steals the show as Kevin, Ahmed's supercilious supervisor. Kevin is the sort of boss who acts like he's everybody's friend when he's really nobody's friend. He's so unfailingly pleasant that his employees fail to see how much he shrewdly undermines their confidence. With his low-key but commanding performance, Fernandez makes Kevin an all-too-realistic villain. He's the smartest character in a very smart play.

Language Rooms runs through April 4, 1010 at the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street. Ticket prices range from $36 to $65 and may be purchased by calling the Wilma Box Office at 215-546-7824, online at or in person at the box office.

Photo: Jim Roese

Mahira Kakkar, Anthony Lawton and
Evan Jonigkeit

At the Arden Theatre, Matt Pfeiffer has directed a lively and entertaining take on Romeo and Juliet. All of the actors do well by Shakespeare's difficult language, and a few are exceptional. But what really makes this production special are Pfeiffer's discreet cuts and cinematic-style crosscutting, which give the production a sense of urgency. In the original text, a scene in which Juliet's body is found by her parents—she's taken a sleeping potion to make her appear dead—is followed by another scene in which Romeo learns the news and reacts in his own way. In Pfeiffer's adaptation, these scenes are interwoven, through lighting and staging, so that all the characters learn the news virtually at once. Pfeiffer uses the technique several times in the play's second half, and it makes the scenes less repetitive, giving the show a welcome burst of energy.

Not that the show needed much more energy. There are lively performances all around, from Suzanne O'Donnell's manic take on the Nurse to Shawn Fagan's wonderfully dynamic Mercutio. Fagan makes such a strong impression that when Mercutio is killed by Tybalt (a nicely uptight Sean Lally), Mercutio's best friend Romeo reacts with uncommon rage: Romeo not only slays Tybalt with a sword, he chokes him for good measure. (Dale Anthony Girard is responsible for the excellent fight choreography.)

Evan Jonigkeit is an engaging Romeo, playing the role with lots of power and warmth. As Juliet, Mahira Kakkar alternates nicely between gravity and comedy, getting some unexpected laughs in the balcony scene. Overall, though, she plays Juliet with a regal dignity that doesn't always mesh well with Jonigkeit's brash spirit. I'd like to see her as one of King Lear's daughters, but she's not an ideal Juliet.

The play's best performances come from two veteran performers, Anthony Lawton and Scott Greer. Lawton is dignity personified as Friar Laurence, his torment palpable at every moment. Greer plays Juliet's father Lord Capulet, and the scene where he threatens Juliet (after she refuses to marry the man he has picked for her) is a master class in vocal dynamics. Greer seems to use virtually his whole vocal range as he transforms from a sweetly supportive father to a menacing ogre.

The physical production is excellent, from Thom Weaver's meticulous lighting to Brian Sidney Bembridge's sleek and simple set. Rosemarie E. McKelvey's casually modern costumes are generally effective, but the preppy sweaters worn by the Capulets (complete with a coat of arms) are rather peculiar. But that's a rare misstep in a production that is always interesting and, at its best, electrifying.

Romeo and Juliet runs through April 11, 2010 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 (with group discounts available) and may be purchased by calling the Arden Box Office at 215-922-1122, online at or in person at the box office.

Photo: Mark Garvin

-- Tim Dunleavy

Privacy Policy