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Romeo & Juliet

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Elizabeth Olsen and Julian Cihi.
Photo by Joan Marcus.
Verona just got a lot more swank. Well, maybe it's Verona. It could be anywhere, actually—it's kind of hard to tell. In the flavorless world of Classic Stage Company's new Romeo and Juliet, specific questions such as "where" and "why" aren't really important. Like so many other things in Tea Alagic's production they've been subsumed, if not buried altogether, by the oh-so-trendy notion that all that matters with this play is a bunch of good-looking, badly behaving people are looking good and behaving badly with each other.

To some degree, perhaps that's true. William Shakespeare's timeless tragedy, after all, does trade a fair amount on youthful hormones and the bad choices they encourage—even for those who've reached middle age and beyond. But to strip away literally everything else, from the set to complex characterizations to even the very poetry of the writing, is to invite trouble that even the finest directors and actors would struggle to fend off.

Yes, I said poetry. Alagic has chosen to use neither the opening nor the closing verse passages ("Two households, both alike in dignity" and "Never was a story of more woe"), instead beginning with a wordless montage in which the performers stand in a line onstage, Capulets and Montagues separated only by a thin barrier of light, and ending with Friar Laurence (Daniel Davis) crying aloud to the heavens about all the pain that the warring families have inflicted on their community.

This unquestionably thrusts things into the present, working with Marsha Ginsberg's shiny but functionally empty wooden box of a set (the only furniture of note are a handful of chairs upstage, and those exist only to be thrown by Kathryn Meisle, doing her best as Lady Capulet) to emphasize minimalism above all else. But, intentionally or otherwise, it also drop-kicks the play out of the realm of the romantic. And if we don't believe that Romeo (Julian Cihi) and Juliet (Elizabeth Olsen) are passionately, dangerously in love—or, heck, lust—with each other, nothing that happens afterwards makes a lick of sense.

As a result, the pair's relationship tumbles along at top speed, failing to engage us (or, apparently, themselves), as the clans war around them. Forget the balcony scene, staged and played almost as an afterthought: The death of Mercutio (T.R. Knight, over the top) is the first, and really only, time that Romeo appears invested in another person. His desperate death grip on his friend and the actions that follow speak volumes about that pair's relationship that hardly anyone bothers developing elsewhere in the evening.

A few of the other actors have some isolated success. Davis brings a clear-eyed yet caring authority (and that rich, supple voice) to Friar Laurence, and elevates everyone with whom he shares scenes closer to the play's classic tradition. Stan Demidoff turns out a surprisingly sensitive and intelligent Paris, who demonstrates a care and emotional investment that aren't especially useful in Juliet's arranged, throwaway replacement paramour. David Garrison brings baked-in ferocity to Capulet, suggesting that he's been enraged at the Montagues for so long he doesn't remember why. And though Daphne Rubin-Vega isn't giving a traditionally rooted or honest portrayal of Juliet's nurse, her speed-talking Latina fashion-plate take is undeniably amusing.

The core of the play, alas, is on the squishier side. Cihi's Romeo is generally likable, but disconnected and vapid: He reads as the type who makes friends easily when he's out and about, but behind closed doors would rather stare at his own reflection than a living woman—less than ideal for a young man whose easily moonstruck nature is a crucial plot catalyst. As for Olsen, she's a marvel in her earliest scenes, seeming to descend into early adolescence to embody the girl's innocence from the inside out. Sadly, she's rather less convincing as the anguished woman Juliet becomes: more mannered and distant, less in touch with the feelings that should drive her. And her chemistry with Cihi is nonexistent throughout.

It's worth mentioning that, despite this production's missteps, it goes considerably further than does the current one on Broadway in taking what it's doing seriously. Alagic has ensured that, whatever else may be going on, the actors are always playing for keeps, so you never question that something is at stake. Unlike so much of David Leveaux's revival, few parts of this mounting are played strictly for laughs.

Aside from modernity, however, they're not played for anything else, either. From the lack of heat in the leads to de-emphasizing the lyricism to reworking the ending so that even the gangs' reconciliation is barely focused upon, Alagic forgoes the play's entire foundation in pursuit of a primal impact that, because the necessary prep work hasn't been done, cannot come. Romeo and Juliet only works if all its pieces are in alignment; if they're not, as is the case here, it doesn't matter how attractive and hip the cast or the set are—sitting through the play will be a thoroughly ugly, square experience.

Romeo & Juliet
Through November 10
Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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