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(Originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune, March 5, 2001)



Young love and premature death guaranteed the everlasting mystique of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Products of medieval Italy's feuding noble clans and timeless embodiments of rebellious desire, the star-crossed lovers have spoken to generations across the ages. They've also inspired several artistic updates, most notably the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim-Jerome Robbins' 1957 musical "West Side Story" and Baz Luhrmann's 1996 apocalyptic gang-warfare film, "Romeo + Juliet."

Admittedly inspired by these modern versions, Philadelphia choreographer Rennie Harris transfers the ill-fated pair to a gang-infested urban hood in his hip-hop dance-opera, "Rome & Jewels." But his more abstract interpretation, performed over the weekend by Rennie Harris Puremovement at the Museum of Contemporary Art, transcends mere updating. Instead this ferociously engaging performance piece, which avoids heavy-handed moralizing, slices across time and space as the self-mocking gang leader, Rome, battles his own confounded psyche in a world of deadly rivalries.

Harris wisely focuses on the bonding rituals of its homeboy characters to address larger issues of desperate socioeconomic conditions and gang-enforced conformity. Here the Montagues are the rhythmic hip-hop Monster Qs, headed by Rome; and the Capulets their rival breakdancing gang, the Caps, with Tybault as its leader. When Rome falls for Tybault's girl, Jewels (an offstage presence to heighten the men's quest for an unattainable ideal), violence erupts.

"Rome & Jewels," which combines dangerous athleticism with blissful and disturbing rap-poetry arias, also cuts to the quick of hip-hop culture - from an obsession with ornamentation (reflected in the name Jewels) to ultra-competitive posturing.

Despite occasional lapses in focus and an over-active fog machine, "Rome & Jewels" is a heart-pounding aural-visual explosion. The black-clad Monster Qs and blood-red-costumed Caps spin, flip and twist their bodies against a frenetic video monitor. Their bodies seem propelled forward and backward in time by DJs Miz, Cisum and Evil Tracy - whose virtuoso spinning sends vinyl science into another galaxy.

Rodney Mason's intense, fluid and lovingly flawed performance as Rome shapes the production's psychological intricacies. He achieves jaw-dropping optical illusions through his split-personality, stream-of-consciousness conversations with himself and the invisible Jewels. Sabela Delvin Grimes' cryptic Ben V. and Leslie Rivera's earnest Mercutio add compelling timbres to Rome's poetic quest for self-fulfillment.The testosterone-heavy cast also includes two bold female dancers (Jules Heather Urich and Catherine Golden) who convincingly portray boastful male Caps.

Rome's unfettered lust for life, the show's underlying theme, bursts forth in Mason's coy complaint, "The world is an orgy, and I wasn't even invited. "Rome & Jewels" - a raw and lush portrait of hip-hop life - is a potent ode to in-phat-uation and youthful invincibility. •
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