By: David Sheward
This is a rare New York theatre season for Shakespeare lovers. There are so many productions of Willy the Shake’s canon, you’d think we were in London. But the first two major offerings in this Bardathon have proved disappointing. Not only one, but two stagings of Romeo and Juliet are, to quote another beloved classic, stale, flat, and unprofitable.
The Classic Stage Company’s mounting of the star-crossed lovers’ tale is even more butchered and bland than its star-stuffed Broadway counterpart. Like the Main Stem version featuring movie heartthrob Orlando Bloom and Tony nominee Condola Rashad, director Tea Alagic’s Off-Broadway CSC version is given the contemporary treatment, and she borrows heavily from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film retelling, the houses of Montague and Capulet recast as warring crime families.
Alagic layers on the Mafioso theme with such a heavy hand, and she adds on so many director’s concepts and gimmicks, the title teenagers’ central love story is totally lost. In the most glaringly inappropriate choice, she adds an incestuous affair between Lady Capulet and her nephew, a hot Tybalt, which distracts from the main pair. The script is cut with a machete, so we lose several beautiful passages of prose and plot, and Marsha Ginsberg’s set is so stripped down, Juliet has no balcony. Swords are eliminated, replaced with tiny, almost invisible switchblades. During the dueling scenes, antagonists smear each other with blobs of gooey stage blood rather than believably stabbing their opponents. In the ball sequence, costume designer Clint Ramos decks everyone out as if they were backup dancers for Miley Cyrus’s twerking number at the VMAs, and, for his first encounter with Juliet, Romeo wears a giant Winnie-the-Pooh head.
This last wardrobe malfunction could have worked with the teeny-boppers kidding around with the cartoon masks and then removing them to assume grownup roles as mature lovers. But Julian Cihi and Elizabeth Olsen remain giggling or wailing kiddies throughout the evening until their characters’ tragic end, staged with limp impact by Alagic. That’s unfortunate, because both young actors display promise, exhibiting strong diction and fine basic technique, but they just don’t have the chops to fully convey the journey from childish puppy affection to consuming passion.
Most of the cast is equally lost. At first T.R. Knight makes an intriguing Mercutio, but soon Knight becomes too jittery and manic. As the nurse, Daphne Rubin-Vega plays it too much for laughs and fails to make a vital connection with Olsen’s Juliet. David Garrison and Kathryn Meisle competently portray Alagic’s subtext for Lord and Lady Capulet (anger and jealousy over the mother’s affair with Tybalt). They were probably directed to play it that way, but it steals focus from the title lovers.
Only Daniel Davis as Friar Laurence imparts the devastation of young amour destroyed by blind hatred. The first moving moment in the entire production doesn’t arrive until nearly the end. As the friar is informed his letters to Romeo about Juliet’s faked death have not been delivered, the forthcoming tragedy is written all over Davis’s eloquent and tear-stained features. When Friar Laurence is the most compelling person on stage, you know something is terribly wrong.
Oct. 16-Nov. 10. Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13 St., NYC. Tue-Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission. $60. (866) 811-4111. www.ovationtix.com