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NEW YORK – The poster shot of Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad for Romeo and Juliet, with both clad in purest white and lost in each other’s eyes on a bed of snowy linens, could be a perfume commercial. Let’s call it William Shakespeare’s Obsession. But the dreamy intoxication that such a heady fragrance might transmit is largely missing from David Leveaux’s snoozy modern-dress production, along with poetry and heat. Bloom is the big name on the marquee and he makes a confident Broadway debut, roaring onto the stage on a motorcycle no less. But such contemporary trappings never quite amount to a distinctive edge.
Shakespeare’s tragedy of young lovers divided by an ancient family feud was last produced on Broadway 36 years ago. The primary target this time around appears to be high-schoolers studying the text as part of their curriculum. This is an accessible illustrated edition, with an uneven ensemble giving performances heavy on indication. Leveaux emphasizes the interfamilial hatred between the two Verona clans by stirring in interracial tension, making the Montagues white and the Capulets black. But like the non-specific update of the setting, that addition seems more like window dressing than evidence of a dramatically cohesive textual analysis.
The play’s language often appears to be an obstacle for Leveaux, and he responds by riding roughshod over it. In the opening brawl between lads from the opposing families, the actors hurtle through their dialogue, most of which is rendered incomprehensible by David Van Tieghem’s thundering percussive score. That reduces the hostility between rival aristocracies to a generic rumble that, perhaps deliberately, evokes West Side Story. But it neglects to establish the long history of bitter division between the two families and its festering disruption of peace in the town.
Production designer Jesse Poleshuck’s fussy mechanized set of moving pieces suggests we’re in present-day Verona or someplace like it, where the legacy of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers is scrawled in graffiti all over the distressed frescoed walls.
There’s a sense from the outset that Leveaux’s method is to barrel through the yappy contextual scenes in order to linger over the rhapsodic romantic encounters. But that approach is undone by the shortage of sparks between the two leads.
At 36, Bloom, in theory, is too old to play Romeo. But his boyish prettiness serves the role well, and his early classical training is evident in the ease and conviction he brings to the language. He conveys the idea of Romeo as an impassioned idealist too naive to see the intransigence of the society into which he was born. Looking lean and athletic in a torso-hugging white henley, ripped jeans and cherry-red Doc Martens, Bloom gives his screen fans plenty to swoon over, including a brief shirtless scene that will set lots of hearts racing.
Rashad is graceful and pretty as Juliet, effortlessly passing for a girl not yet 14. But she’s also bland. A compelling Juliet (like Lauren Ambrose was in the 2007 Shakespeare in the Park production) requires the innocence to be swept up by a tidal wave of emotion, but also the self-possession of one who preternaturally knows her mind as well as her heart. That resolve becomes apparent only late in a performance that too often falls back on goofy lovestruck smiles and tender gazes. The emerging stage actress has consistently impressed in recent seasons with her delicate work in Ruined, Stick Fly and The Trip to Bountiful, the latter two earning her back-to-back Tony nominations. But her performance here is all surface sweetness and vulnerability, lacking the innate pluck or intelligence that this contemporary reading demands. Juliet can often be a frustratingly docile character, and in this staging that proves a handicap.
Leveaux does everything in his power to invigorate their union, from lighting columns of fire onstage to punctuating the masked ball where they meet with pulsing bursts of tribal dance. But these flourishes are futile when the chemistry simply isn’t there. Even in the crucial balcony scene, they talk the talk about the overwhelming magic of love, but we never feel infected by the giddy helplessness, the sheer wonder of their mutual discovery.
The production finds some traction when exposing the gap separating adolescents from their uncomprehending parents. Romeo’s folks (Michael Rudko, Tracy Sallows) are dithering bores whose centrality in his life has long been usurped by his band of friends, while Juliet’s parents (Chuck Cooper, Roslyn Ruff) are overbearing control freaks. Cooper and Ruff are mighty actors who provide some entertaining fireworks, but their ferocious choices are hit and miss, a long way from the rich humanity of their work together in last season’s The Piano Lesson revival.
Leveaux underlines that the key adult relationships for both protagonists are unconnected by blood. Romeo turns for guidance to Friar Laurence, played with jittery intensity by Brent Carver; while Juliet relies on her Nurse (Jayne Houdyshell) as friend, confidante and trusted mediator. Houdyshell as always brings earthy warmth and humor to the role.
Christian Camargo’s Mercutio is a beautifully spoken showboater, vain and cocky. But the director’s unwillingness to trust the text is evident in the actor’s unrelenting thrusting, winking, and gesticulating to draw out every ounce of lewd innuendo. In more limited roles, Corey Hawkins’ Tybalt is suitably hot-tempered and proud, while Justin Guarini makes a respectable Shakespeare debut as Paris, the drippy nobleman suitor endorsed by Juliet’s parents.
Despite this being one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays, in New York at least it’s more seldom produced than visceral tragedies such as Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear. Beyond school studies, many younger audiences will know Romeo and Juliet from its two most notable screen versions: Franco Zeffirelli’s nakedly emotional 1968 retelling and Baz Luhrmann’s aggressively contemporary music-video interpretation from 1996. Leveaux’s staging falls ineffectually between those two poles. It recounts an indestructible tale of love thwarted by hate in storytelling that’s competent but lacking in transporting urgency. When the lovers die, it’s sad, not shattering.
Venue: Richard Rodgers Theatre, New York (runs through Jan. 12)
Cast: Orlando Bloom, Condola Rashad, Brent Carver, Jayne Houdyshell, Chuck Cooper, Christian Camargo, Roslyn Ruff, Conrad Kemp, Corey Hawkins, Justin Guarini, Donte Bonner, Joe Carroll, Don Guillory, Sheria Irving, Maurice Jones, Geoffrey Owens, Spencer Plachy, Michael Rudko, Tracy Sallows, Thomas Schall, Carolyn Michelle Smith, Nance Williamson
Director: David Leveaux
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Production designer: Jesse Poleshuck
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Costume designer: Fabio Toblini
Music and sound designer: David Van Tieghem
Movement director: Nancy Bannon
Fight director: Thomas Schall
Presented by Susan Bristow, James L. Nederlander, Terry Allen Kramer, Merritt Forrest Baer, Paula Marie Black, Stephen C. Byrd, Alia Jones-Harvey, Jon B. Platt, Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley, in association with Manny Bello, Peter May, Douglas Smith, Jonathan M. Tisch
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