Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - September 19, 2013
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Directed by David Leveaux. Scenic design by Jesse Poleshuck. Costume design by Fabio Toblini. Lighting design by David Weiner. Original music & sound design by David van Tieghem. Hair design by David Brian Brown. Movement direction by Nancy Bannon. Voice Coach Patsy Rodenburg. Fight direction by Thomas Schall. Cast: Orlando Bloom, Condola Rashad, also starring Brent Carver, Jayne Houdyshell, Chuck Cooper, Christian Camargo, and Roslyn Ruff, Conrad Kemp, Corey Hawkins, Justin Guarini, Dontι Bonner, Joe Carroll, Don Guillory, Sheria Irving, Maurice Jones, Eric Loscheider, Geoffrey Owens, Spencer Plachy, Michael Rudko, Tracy Sallows, Thomas Schall, Carolyn Michelle Smith, Nance Williamson.
I beg to differ.
The notion of woe, at least as outlined by William Shakespeare in the final couplet of Romeo and Juliet, implies a crushing loss: stratospheric highs cut down to abyssal lows, perhaps needlessly, but in any event traversing our shared experience in a way that pierces straight to the most elemental and defining emotions of humanity. But in David Leveaux's new revival of Shakespeare's deathless romantic tragedy at the Richard Rodgers, one is supremely challenged to identify any feelings at all.
Oh, one doesn't have to look far to find instances where Leveaux has sought to intentionally elicit reactions. Having male romantic lead Orlando Bloom enter on a motorcycle is theoretically a visceral thrill. Or, after Bloom's Romeo and Juliet (Condola Rashad) have consummated their love, having the Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean star stand cheated out just perfectly to the mezzanine without his shirt is good for titillating some segment of the onlookers. Then there are the multiple scenes that are played transparently for laughs: the ultra-famous balcony scene, for example (good thing nothing else is happening then), or the one in which Tybalt and Mercutio both meet the wrong ends of blades foremost among them.
But provoking the audience and involving it are two strikingly different things. If Leveaux and his creative team have mastered the former, they haven't come close to the latter. It may still be theoretically set in Verona (as scenic designer Jesse Poleshuck tells us with his forever-moving fresco backdrop, one of the few parts of the incomprehensible set he doesn't indiscriminately set on fire), despite the rival Montague and Capulet families being white English and black African-American street gangs, but aside from the lines as written if rarely as delivered this play bears but a passing resemblance to Shakespeare.
Though Leveaux is a remarkably inconsistent director generally wildly off-base with American musicals (Nine, Fiddler on the Roof) and dramas (The Glass Menagerie), but better with comedies from the opposite side of the Atlantic (Jumpers and Cyrano de Bergerac, if not necessarily the recent Arcadia) usually his misfires are understandable. Romeo and Juliet, in its best moments, looks as though it wasn't so much directed as arranged and that during an earthquake.
To the extent a concept is detectable (or perhaps "inferable"), Leveaux was apparently applying a stripped-down, this-could-happen-to-you aesthetic that renders us as all helpless actors in our own avant-garde drama. This, at any rate, might explain why Poleshuck's set recalls an empty Gothic theater with sand on the floor and the weird flying flaming poles nothing else does or the time - jumbled costumes by Fabio Toblini and indecisive lights by David Weiner.
What it does not do is illumine anything about the play, unpack the complex concerns of actual people, or impart any forceful perspective that might justify the disconnect. Almost everything about this production is either outwardly apologetic, or behaving as though it hopes you won't notice it. The little authority that can be felt from the stage emanates from only three sources.
Luckily one of them is Rashad, who's perhaps overly robust as Juliet, but who's as luminous here as she's proven in her other major stage roles in The Trip to Bountiful and Ruined. Brandishing a palpable, if skeptical, innocence, Rashad lets Juliet melt slowly but surely for Romeo, and only later give way to the angst that will lead her to her undoing.
When she's crying out in disbelief at the ill fortune of falling for her family's enemy, her wails are choked not with anger or despair but with affection: as though she does not doubt that love can and will conquer all. When events turn against her and Romeo later she doesn't descend easily back into despondency, but rather hangs on to the newfound focus of her heart with the complete trust that God or fate will never let it be ripped from her. You don't just see the girl become the woman, you see the woman struggle against all odds to not become the girl again. It's captivating.
Just as good are Christian Camargo and Conrad Kemp, who give Romeo's compatriots verve, stature, and dramatic dimensions that propel them from the ensemble. Camargo's glowering overtones effectively presage Mercutio's own bitter end, and Kemp's brighter attitude gives his Benvolio further to fall, but both are bright spots in the scenes in which they appear.
Otherwise, the acting corps reeks of ham even from performers who have previously proven they know better. From Brent Carver as a campy Friar Laurence, Chuck Cooper as a disjointedly blustering Lord Capulet, and Geoffrey Owens as a plastic-posturing Prince to Roslyn Ruff as the steel-cold Lady Capulet and an unusually unbearable Jayne Houdyshell as the hyperactive, sitcom-ready nurse, no other actor is moored to a recognizable, unified reality. Corey Hawkins (Tybalt) and Justin Guarini (Paris) perhaps fare better than the others in their minuscule roles, but you're consciously aware of every millisecond of work they're doing just to stay afloat.
Bloom, too, is obviously giving it his all, though he's ultimately underequipped for the task. He broods acceptably while wearing a smile, but he doesn't do much else: He neither evinces nor inspires passion, rage, or sympathy, and on the myriad occasions he's directed to direct lines toward the audience he fails to connect with us on a bare personality level, either. What drives this Romeo to Juliet and keeps him there is forever a mystery; his meticulously molded expression doesn't look like it would change if he were facing a prospect of Friday night on the couch with a Netflix subscription and a tub of frozen yogurt.
You can't see yourself in him, any more than you can Juliet, the meddling-but-well-meaning Friar Laurence, or even the bickering families. He, like everything else Leveaux has touched here, is in his own little baffling, exclusionary world. For those of us on the outside, joy, woe, or anything beyond crippling indifference would be a step up.