Classic Stage’s production of Shakespeare’s love story competes with the high visibility of Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad performing on Broadway in a rendering that got respectful though not rapturous reviews. I’m a fan of Elizabeth Olsen’s screen work (she was devastating in Martha Marcy May Marlene and smart and appealing in Liberal Arts). And because the Class Stage Company regularly turns in compelling versions of Shakespeare, Chekhov, Sondheim, and more, I opted for the downtown version, eager to see what director Tea Alagic (who mounted the exciting production of Elfriede Jelenick’s Jackie for the Women’s Project last season) would do with the play.
The stunning opening promised a lot, as one by one, to discordant electronic music, each character appeared on the nearly empty blond wood stage floor, taking their places beside one another in a line across the back wall. Capulets and Montagues moved into their places, stonily looking into the audience. As the cast filed in, a neon red line bisected the stage wall behind them, painting in one bold image the divisions that would doom them all.
Would that the production had continued with that clarity and force. Alagic’s post-modern interpretation has potential, but perhaps it’s just not there yet. (I saw a preview performance October 5th; the production opens October 16th.) From that bold metaphorical beginning, the actors proceeded to wander through the language and meander around that nicely empty stage. While they all cut bold figures, in contemporary clothing that hints at its Elizabethan referents—the men’s pants, for instance, cling tight and often hang below the crotch—Alagic’s concept quickly fizzles.
The young actors playing Romeo’s buds make a compelling visual group. Benvolio is solidly played by McKinley Belcher III, and Mercutio by T.R. Knight (though sadly, I saw an understudy), both as guys from the hood who have Romeo’s back. Romeo, the melancholic but quickly love-lorn and hopeful young man, is played by the slight but romantic Julian Cihi (recently graduated from NYU), a Japanese-American with an interesting face and long curly hair pulled back around his ears. The three men get the affection and determination of their crew, but they falter with the language, which sounds under-rehearsed and as a result, meaningless.
Olsen also falters with the dialogue. She plays Juliet as young and naive, constantly fingering the hem of her dress and her sweater (her virginal youth is signaled always and only by white costumes). She looks the part, with her open face and her long blond hair, but her talents seem better suited for the more subtle expressions of film acting than they are for the stage (or at least, for Shakespeare). Olsen’s voice sounds thin and untrained. She interprets Juliet’s most famous lines through contemporary cadences, rushing through the words, tossing them off as though she’s saying “whatever” with a shoulder shrug and an eye roll. Instead of making the speeches modern and relevant, this choice just makes her lines rushed and vague.
Alagic conceives the Capulets unevenly. The patriarch (David Garrison) is cruel and capricious, wearing a red robe that evokes kingliness. Lady Capulet (Kathryn Meisle) is played as an adulterer who’s in love with the quickly dispatched Tybalt; Lord Capulet’s determination to see Juliet quickly married to Paris (Stan Demidoff) is motivated by his jealousy over his wife’s affair. Meisle plays Lady Capulet in the highest of heels, wearing tight pink slacks, a leopard-patterned shirt, and a long blonde wig. Her too-chic, faux sexy bearing signals a narcissistic wealthy matron, a woman who can’t take be bothered to care for her teenage daughter.
Daphne Rubin-Vega (Streetcar Named Desire) plays the Nurse as a Latina spitfire much in the vein of Sofia Vergara’s Gloria on Modern Family. Even some of Rubin-Vega’s inflections and cadences sound familiar from Vergara’s Colombian stereotype. Wearing five-inch platform shoes that require her to totter about the stage, and black bolero pants with a white silk shirt that make her look like a dashing matador, Rubin-Vega plays the Nurse for laughs. She and Olsen work up little affection or compassion for one another. When they’re onstage with Lady Capulet, all three women’s performances seem flat and unattractive. They’re visual jokes, rather than pillars of narrative or meaning.
Finally, what is Romeo and Juliet without the fire of the young lovers’ passion? Well, it’s a pretty dull slog to a familiar ending, with none of the pathos or wistfulness or sorrow that should accompany this most iconic of stories. Olsen and Cihi seemed to be acting past one another when I saw the production, rather than igniting the surprising fire of first-sight love. Their climactic death scene is rather quiet here, even nonchalant. As they slump on the floor, the Friar expresses his regret, the lights go down, the curtain call is comported, and off we go into the night, perplexed, weary, and unsatisfied.
The production appears to have been plagued with casting changes. Finn Wittrock (Death of a Salesman) was originally announced to play Romeo, and William Hurt was first listed as Friar Laurence. With these two more seasoned actors in those key roles, and perhaps with T.R. Knight onstage as Mercutio, the production might have had more heft. As is, it’s a surprising and disappointing miscalculation for the usually solid and compelling Classic Stage Company.
The Feminist Spectator
Romeo and Juliet, Classic Stage Company, opens October 16, extended through November 10, 2013.