The Romeo and Juliet from the Classic Stage Company, starring Elizabeth Olsen and newcomer Julian Cihi who look terrific together, is the third production of Shakespeare’s tragedy in as many weeks. The first, on Broadway with Orlando Bloom, was a disappointment — derivative and dull. The second, Off-Off Broadway, was a delight, but deviant — a fun frat party version of the play that strays so from the original that they give it a different title: R+J: Star’Crossed Death Match. Would this third one then, Off-Broadway, be just right — fresh but faithful to the Bard?
Hope diminished from the start, when director Tea Alagic chose to eliminate the prologue. Instead, the cast members walk on stage and line up, giving us smoldering looks as if models on a runway. This in itself should not be fatal, I thought: Many productions trim and alter Shakespeare’s text, and what’s wrong with actors acting sexy?
Then there was the design. The stage looks like a high school gymnasium; the Montagues seem dressed like basketball players at a pick-up game. The Capulets resemble circus performers, bare-chested and tattooed or in silk shirts opened to the navel, while Lady Capulet (Kathryn Meisle), a teased blonde in leopard-print blouse and shoes and pink slacks, could star in Real Housewives of Verona. By contrast, Lord Capulet (David Garrison) appears considerably older and wears an elegant red velvet robe, as if to suggest Hugh Hefner. The Nurse (Daphne Rubin-Vega) walks awkwardly in platform shoes from the 1970’s, and later wears a scarf and sunglasses like a movie star from the 1950s. Like the Romeo and Juliet on Broadway, it’s not completely clear when and where the play is taking place, other than recently and nearby. But an argument can be made, I thought, that, since Shakespeare set this play in contemporary times, so we should do so now, and what’s wrong with being a little playful?
The CSC production of Romeo and Juliet finally lost me at the party scene where Romeo and Juliet first meet. The director has set the costume party at a disco — cue, pounding disco music, flashing lights, dancers in underwear. Romeo wears as his costume an enormous yellow Winnie the Pooh head — the size and shape of a prize-winning pumpkin. I’ll admit it got a laugh out of me. But that didn’t last long.
Romeo is crashing the party being given by the family that has been enemies with his own for generations (an “ancient grudge”) because he learns that Rosaline — the girl he pines for, but who has rejected him — is on the guest list. Would he really wear a loud, clownish outfit that might draw attention to himself, thus risking his exposure? Would he want to appear so ridiculous in his beloved’s eyes? And would Juliet be so instantly drawn to a kid wearing a cartoon bear head?
Such a choice, in other words, doesn’t make sense from the characters’ point of view. It reflects a directorial agenda that doesn’t seem to put the main priority on the storytelling.
Many in the 13-member cast come through with effective performances, including Garrison. T.R. Knight plays Mercutio less cerebral and more demonstrative than is usual for Romeo’s witty friend, but his clowning largely works, and his demise is touching. Rubin-Vega plays the Nurse as a haughty domestic with a Latina accent, which is entertaining in the early humorous scenes, but can be distracting in the later, tragic ones. Yet, Rubin-Vega is a good enough actress that she contributes to some affecting moments.
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Julian Cihi is a recent graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts who was a last-minute replacement for Finn Wittrock, who left for a movie. Cihi is graceful and quick-limbed, bouncing up like a cat on the lone table that, along with a few chairs, constitutes the entire set. It’s commendable that CSC chose an unknown closer in age to the character, and perhaps he will grow into the role. At the performance I saw, though, Romeo doesn’t seem in love with Juliet – or with Rosaline, or with love itself, which is the basic requirement of the character. Cihi is best at doing fury rather than affection, and it feels genuinely moving when he discovers Mercutio slain. His passion at that moment works despite the odd staging of the scene; there are no daggers, or even switchblades. Instead, Tybalt (Dion Mucciacito) and Mercutio and Romeo take turns dipping their hands into a red bucket, to retrieve the red dye that looks like blood, and they just touch their foes with the dye rather than stab them.
The Broadway Romeo and Juliet is built around Orlando Bloom. The Off-Broadway production is built around Elizabeth Olsen. Both were marketing decisions –if we hire a movie star, the people will come. Olsen, younger sister of the Olsen twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, is lovely to look at. Unlike the costumes of some of the other characters, hers — mostly simply diaphanous white frocks that could easily be undergarments — work with the character. (Why, though, was she wearing black combat boots?) But her performance is nothing extraordinary, not memorable enough to make up for the deficit in her partner. There is far more rapport between the two evident in the photo shoot than I recall emanating from the stage/gymnasium floor.
I suspect I would have found the Classic Stage Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet more engaging — or at least would have been more tolerant of some of its choices and performances — had this been the first Romeo and Juliet I had seen in a while. But we’ve got a buyer’s market for Romeo and Juliets these days – not just the three in New York theaters, but the new movie Romeo and Juliet by Julian Fellowes (Downtown Abbey), which hasn’t impressed too many film critics (Manola Dargis: “A sufficiently entertaining, adamantly old-fashioned adaptation that follows the play’s general outline without ever rising to the passionate intensity of its star-cross’d crazy kids.” Romeo as played by Douglas Booth “is framed, lighted, dressed and undressed like a delectable morsel.”) There is even a new musical Romeo and Juliet aiming for Broadway — The Last Goodbye, currently at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego.
And let’s not forget that older movie versions of Romeo and Juliet, some of them terrific, are available everywhere from Netflix to the local library.
It is safe to say — and most Shakespearean scholars do say — that Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays, and has been so continuously since it was first performed about 420 years ago. Why are so many directors coming up with such disappointing productions? My Twitter pal, theater artist and educator Frank Episale, has a good answer: “Most productions try to sell tickets with prettiness. It’s not a pretty play.”
Romeo and Juliet
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tea Alagic
Scenic design by Marsha Ginsberg, costume design by Clint Ramos, lighting design by Jason Lyons, original music and sound design by Ryan Rumery.
Cast: Elizabeth Olsen, Julian Cihi, T.R Knight, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Daniel Davis, McKinley Belcher III, Stan Demidoff, Harry Ford, David Garrison, Anthony Michael Martinez, Kathryn Meisle, Dion Mucciacito and John Rothman.
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes including a 10-minute intermission
Tickets: $65. “20 tickets at $20 each will be available for Friday evening performances” going on sale the previous Monday of the week
Romeo and Juliet is set to run through November 10. (It already has been extended once.)