The ROMEO AND JULIET battle for the hearts and minds of New York theatergoers continues with the new revival playing at the Classic Stage Company (CSC) on E. 13th Street. The Broadway revival, starring Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad, is up against this Off Broadway staging (which uses the ampersand in its title), directed by Tea Alagić and starring Elizabeth Olsen and Julian Cihi. (We'll leave discussion of the just opened film version, starring Hallie Steinfeld and Douglas Booth, to other commentators.)
Elizabeth Olsen and Julian Cihi. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The Bloom-Rashad version, which received mixed reviews, nevertheless edges out the newcomer, even though the CSC leads are much closer in age to the characters they play. Ms. Olsen, best known for her film work, looks more like a conventional Juliet than the much taller Ms. Rashad, but Ms. Rashad is more comfortable with the verse, which often gets muffled in Ms. Olsen’s naturalistic approach. She’s sweet, lovely, and talented; perhaps, in a better directed production, she might have made a stronger impression; here she's just passable. Mr. Cihi, a young man with a slender dancer’s body and with his hair pulled back in a pony tail, replaced Finn Wittrock as Romeo when the more experienced actor had a conflict with a film assignment. Mr. Cihi, to be honest, simply lacks the star charisma of Mr. Bloom; his experience is rather limited and it shows. This practically unknown actor, just recently a student at NYU, has been thrown into a difficult situation; it’s impossible to avoid making comparisons when two productions of the same classic are running simultaneously. On the one hand, Mr. Cihi has the advantage of the underdog going up against a much more mature actor best known for his movie acting and just as inexperienced at Shakespeare. But Mr. Bloom’s performance is far more vigorous, romantic, and vocally expressive, and Mr. Cihi, despite being far closer to Romeo in age, is not yet ready for prime time.
Once again, as in the Broadway production, ROMEO & JULIET is being given a modern dress version; the bigger budget of that version allows for more expensive costuming and sets, and even the use of a motorcycle for Romeo to make his entrance on, but the essential thrust of both productions is the same. The young men are made to look and behave like contemporary gang members, Sampson (Stan Demidoff), for example, wearing skintight jeans and shirtless to display his multiply tattooed, sculpted torso. Let’s face it, the gang warfare gambit has run its course. Now hear this: WEST SIDE STORY was influenced by ROMEO AND JULIET, not the other way around!
Whereas the Capulet side is black on Broadway, it leans toward the Hispanic on Off Broadway. There are a number of lines delivered in Spanish, not only by the tough guys, but by the Nurse (Daphne Rubin-Vega), who is depicted as a pint-sized hot tamale—a sort of miniature Sofia Vergara—in fashionable slacks, platform shoes, white blouse, and large cross hanging from her neck, with her hair piled on top of her head in two side by cylinders that made me think of Lily Tomlin’s character of Ernestine the telephone operator. More Spanish expressions spill from the mouth of Lady Capulet (Kathryn Meisle), a bleached blonde cougar in a tight, hot pink pants suit with a leopard-print blouse. Ben Brantley in the New York Times thinks this Lady Capulet is having a fling with Tybalt (Dion Mucciacito); I didn't notice it but in this mishmash of a production it's as likely as not to be there.
Daphne Rubin-Vega and Elizabeth Olsen. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Too many of Clint Ramos’s costumes, though, are simply dull, none probably more so than Juliet’s. She first appears in white shift, then she’s seen in a demure, white ball dress, then in a white slip, and finally in a white wedding gown that looks like she’s gotten dressed up as a princess for Halloween. When Juliet has her big confrontation with her father about marrying Paris, she stands there barefoot and in her slip; her visit to Friar Laurence (Daniel Davis) right after is also barefoot, and she simply puts an brown raincoat, fully open at the front, over her slip. Mercutio (T.R. Knight) is simply slovenly.
Marsha Ginsberg has provided barely any conventional scenery, everything being played in the three-quarters round on an empty stage whose floor is covered by gym-like wooden flooring. Against the blank rear wall, whose only virtue is to allow for Jason Lyons’s lighting to color it, are nine wood and plastic office chairs, and a long, sleek white table, upstage right used only when Romeo and Juliet, as played here, are presumably in bed together (the “Hark the lark” scene). No attempt at all is made to introduce a balcony for the balcony scene, which is simply meant to be understood as being there. This minimalist approach works well for noh theatre, but contemporary Shakespeare, unless the acting is so brilliant as to require no other distractions (there was barely any scenery at the Globe), usually benefits from visual beauty. The most physically memorable moments come during the ballroom scene, with a lamé silver curtain swished across the upstage area and the dancers—moving to some odd electronic music by Ryan Rumery—dressed in masks and costumes that would have done better at New York Comic Con. Notable among them is the huge head of Winnie-the-Pooh Romeo wears, and that--in another directorial misstep--he's wearing when Juliet falls in love with him.
It’s ironic that the kind of lavishly designed, poetically inclined, Renaissance-inspired ROMEO AND JULIET revivals of yesteryear, now considered mere fustian, have been replaced by too-clever-for-their-own-sake revivals that are semi-clones of one another. We don’t have to return to the days of Katherine Cornell-type revivals, but, please, can we have something beautiful to look at again?
The scripts for both the Broadway and Off-Broadway stagings have been cut considerably, but while the former seems to have gotten something of a trim, the latter appears to have received a scalping, or at least one of those new jobbies where you get one side of your head clipped to the scalp while leaving the other side hanging free. There is no Lady Montague, for example (thank you to my granddaughter, Briar, for spotting that), and my old role of Balthasar (“Enter Balthasar, booted” goes--or went--the stage direction) has been sadly booted to oblivion. The final half hour simply throws Shakespeare to the wind and rushes along, tossing out lines like ballast, and reducing the tomb scene (if you love Paris in the fall, close your eyes cause he ain’t there) to little more than Friar Laurence’s recap of how horribly he’s fucked up everything.
Things don’t go very well for the fight scenes either; since no fight specialist is credited, we can assume that Ms. Alagić takes responsibility for these. The first one, among the Capulet “gang” and the Montagues, uses no weapons, and the command for the brawlers to “put up your swords” must mean “put down your dukes.” When we get to the Tybalt-Mercutio confrontation, Tybalt sheds his satin shirt to flex his muscles and dance around like John L. Sullivan. But Mercutio, abandoning any sympathy Shakespeare may have wished him to garner (T.R. Knight’s awful performance of him as a grungy, raspy whiner would have done that anyway), simply attacks and bloodies his antagonist by striking him with what seem like packets of ketchup that burst on impact. No knife is visible in his hand, so I imagine he’s supposed to be using a razor or piece of glass. When Mercutio himself gets his comeuppance, it’s also from an invisible object. Perhaps Tybalt’s manicurist gave him a sharpened pinky nail; he’s Tybalt the cat, after all, and hasn’t been declawed. For a production that traffics in nonexistent balconies and other props, there’s a hell of a lot of blood to clean up at the end of the first act.
Not all the acting is less than notable or hampered by misdirection; veteran Daniel Davis (who replaced another stellar artist, William Hurt, during rehearsals) brings his rich voice, precise articulation, emotional strength, and insightful readings to Friar Laurence, being far more effective in the role than Brent Carver is on Broadway, and David Garrison offers a strong, clearly outlined Capulet, if not quite as volatile a one as Chris Cooper’s. As is standard for Shakespeare productions, every opportunity to offer a sexual body movement to telegraph the dialogue’s bawdy meaning (actual or imagined) is leaped on like a naughty new discovery. Few actors are capable of speaking Shakespeare as if he actually wrote beautiful verse because they are so preoccupied with trying to sound natural. It would be enough if only the speeches between Romeo and Juliet could respect the verse, combining honesty with lyricism.
There’ll be a lot more Shakespeare stepping up to the plate soon. So far the score is 0-2, but we’re still in the early innings. On deck or in the dugout (the batting order is still in flux): Mark Rylance, heading the Shakespeare’s Globe productions of TWELFE NIGHT OR WHAT YOU WILL and KING RICHARD THE THIRD; Julie Taymor’s MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM; and Ethan Hawke as MACBETH. Let’s hope they at least even the score!