October 20, 2013

Wherefore Art Thou, Poor "Romeo and Juliet"?

Has the art of romance been totally lost?  I ask because three versions of what is arguably the most romantic play of all time, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (you know, the one where the title characters literally die for love) have opened over the last four weeks and not one has managed to win people’s hearts.

I haven’t seen the new movie (which has a screenplay with dialog added by “Downton’s Abbey”’s Julian Fellowes and a piddily 22% favorable rating on the Rotten Tomatoes movie scoring site) but I have seen both the glossy Broadway production now playing at the Richard Rodgers Theatre and the bare-bones interpretation that opened this past week at Classic Stage Company and neither stirred up any passion in me.
I had been rooting for the Broadway version because I’d written a small profile of its Juliet, Condola Rashad, for Essence magazine (click here to read it) and found the actress to be totally charming. The show’s big draw, however, was supposed to be her co-star Orlando Bloom, the heartthrob in “The Lord of the Rings” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies who is making his Broadway debut (click here to read a piece about him).
The two look hot and sexy on the cover of the Playbill and on the billboards that have been plastered across the city but the heat between them is missing onstage. They’re both capable actors (Rashad has been nominated for a Tony for each of her two previous Broadway performances) but they’re novices at doing the Bard’s work and clearly needed guidance from their director David Leveaux.
Alas, Leveaux has spent so much time on making the show look cool (hip contemporary costumes, trendy music played by live musicians, floating balloons, bursts of fire) that he seems to have had little energy leftover for anything else. 
Pre-show publicity had trumpeted how all the members of Juliet’s family, the Capulets, would be black, while their arch enemies, Romeo’s parents, the Montagues all white. That may have given the veteran African-American actors Chuck Cooper and Roslyn Ruff a chance to take on classical roles but nothing is made of the racial distinction so why bring it up in the first place?
Similarly little attempt has been made to unify a hodgepodge of acting styles. Ruff brings such fury to her scenes as Lady Capulet that it seems as though she’s actually auditioning for Lady Macbeth. Christian Camargo shamelessly plays to the audience by turning Romeo’s best friend Mercutio into a hipster dude. And Brent Carver comes across more as the mopey lead singer of an emo band than as the lovers’ well-intentioned but hapless confidante Friar Laurence. 
Thankfully, Jayne Houdyshell summons up her formidable skills and makes Juliet’s Nurse appropriately funny and, when she should be, heartrending. But all the performances are overshadowed by the fussy stage business Leveaux has concocted.  
It’s no spoiler to tell you—cause everyone has been talking about it—that he has Bloom make Romeo’s entrance on a motorcycle for no apparent reason at all, except that it gives anyone who wants to a chance to squeal when the actor removes his helmet. 
Working with scenic designer Jesse Poleshuck and lighting designer David Weiner, Leveaux has created some beautiful stage pictures (tater in the show, Juliet is suspended in midair) but that’s not why those of us who revere the tragedy of the star-crossed lovers go to see Romeo and Juliet.
And I’m afraid I can’t give you any good reasons to see the CSC’s version either. Unlike Leveaux, director Tea Alagić has opted for a minimalist approach. There is barely any set to speak of—just a brick wall, a few chairs and a table. The actors also wear as little as possible (at one point, Juliet’s cousin Tybalt is naked). And several affect a strangled style of speech that is often unintelligible. 
To make matters worse, Alagić is so focused on this mumblecore concept that she, too, has neglected to provide the help that her cast so obviously needs. The result is that Elizabeth Olsen, who has done well in some indie movies, makes a pallid Juliet (click here for an interview with her). And Julian Cihi, a recent graduate of New York University’s masters program, is just as wan as Romeo.

 Meanwhile, the stage vets in the cast are allowed to come on way too strong. T.R. Knight may be best known for his role on TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy” but he began appearing on New York stages in 1999. Yet his interpretation of Mercutio consists entirely of shouting and flinging himself around the set. 
Even worse, Daphne Rubin-Vega, a two-time Tony nominee and the original Mimi in Rent, plays the Nurse as though she were channeling the Latina comedienne Charo, complete with outbursts of Spanglish. 
Audiences are showing little love for either production. Attendance at the Broadway version is hovering around just 50 percent. And on the day  my sister Joanne and I saw the CSC production, about 20 percent of the audience left at intermission.

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