Romeo and Juliet are back in town, but in David Leveaux’ stark new production, it’s difficult to tell just what town it is. The Prologue, as spoken here by Friar Lawrence instead of Chorus, tells us we are still in Verona, but from the look of things, it would appear to be closer to Verona, New Jersey than to the original in Italy.
For once the good Friar leaves (he is played by the fine actor Brent Carver, so we can assume that Mr. Leveaux let him double as Chorus in order to enlarge his part, and to take one actor off the payroll), we are witness to a street fight. The Friar in his Prologue has already told us that the Montagues and the Capulets, “two households both alike in dignity…break from ancient grudge to new mutiny”, so we know we are headed for trouble. And in a flash, two friends of the Montagues become involved first in a verbal battle which escalates into a fight with knives drawn. Disaster is averted when the heads of both houses appear with their spouses, followed by the Prince, who tells everyone to calm down and behave themselves, or “on pain of death,” all will suffer.
I was drawn into this famous tale quickly, but as the moments passed, I was still unsure of where I was, because what I was hearing (the Shakespeare text) was not what I was seeing (a set and costumes more West Side Story). All these guys were dressed in jeans and black shirts, most wore sneakers, some of them vividly colored. The Montague lads were white, the Capulets were black, but that didn’t seem to be responsible for any of the rage that filled the stage. When things relaxed a bit, Lord Montague let us know that he’s been worried about his son, for Romeo was in deep depression over the end of a courtship of one fair Rosalind, who had recently said she wanted out. Then Romeo arrived, roaring onto the set on a flashy motorcycle . He too was all in black, with jeans torn at the knees, slipped so that the top of his jockey shorts was exposed, an expensive helmet covering his head.
I was confused because these lads and all others were sticking to the text, spoken clearly enough for the most part, which made it difficult to understand why these contemporary figures were cursing each other with lines like “I do not bite my thumb at you sir, but I bite my tongue, sir.” And Romeo, who looks like one of the Jets gang in West Side Story, is moaning that love “is a madness most discreet, a choking gall, and a preserving sweet.”
It occurred to me, at about this point early in the play, that Mr. Leveaux felt that young audiences today might more readily identify with the young characters onstage if they dressed contemporaneously rather than in period. The motorcycle and the graffiti on the frescoed wall and the torn jeans and underpants announced the presence of now. But alas and alack, this concept was inconsistent for the rest of the long evening. When, deep in the second half of the play, a message of great importance is not delivered to Romeo in time to stop a tragic act, it is not right that I thought immediately of the character Ella Peterson in the musical Bells Are Ringing singing (and here comes a spoiler) “if Romeo had SusAnswerPhone those two kids would be alive today.”
Now that I’ve vented a bit, let me make it clear that much of this rip roaring story is very well played and on many occasions during the evening it is moving and even funny. Chuck Cooper, for example, as Juliet’s father Lord Capulet, brings a very real and contemporary approach to the self-important tycoon who is raising his adored young daughter strictly according to his lights. He’s about to marry her off to her cousin Paris, who is everything a father would want for his daughter; young, attractive, on the rise in business, devoted.
Juliet herself is reasonably interested in him, asking only that she be allowed some time (to meet another fellow or two before she’s wed; after all she’s only thirteen and if we are to be in the present, that hardly makes her a spinster). In 1303, and in other plays of the 16th century that inspired Shakespeare to write his play, Lord Capulet’s edict might have made more sense. Dressed in a business suit, looking every inch the successful modern business man, one was prompted to say, “Hey old man, what’s the rush? Give the girl a break!”
But this play is called what it is because it’s really all about these two youngsters who meet by chance at a ball to which Romeo has not been invited (it’s for the Capulet family and their friends). He only agrees to gate crash because he is urged to go in order to meet a number of available young ladies who might ease the pain of Rosalind’s rejection, but once he gets a glimpse of lovely, untouched Juliet, he knows she is the one for him.
Orlando Bloom, film star making his Broadway debut, does a beautiful job of conveying awe, surprise, fear, lust and even love as he maneuvers his way across the hall to come close to this young woman. Once she spots him, her attraction to him is equally clear, and Condola Rashad, only recently so brilliant in a small role in the revival of The Trip to Bountiful, again proves she’s a chip off the old block, the block being her mother, Phylicia Rashad, a lovely actress herself. The younger Rashad has remarkable presence, and her Juliet is luminous in the first act. She has a little more trouble in the second half, for though it only covers a few days, circumstances force her to face very adult problems in short order, and the young actress will be even better when she matures. But much of the joy in this production stems from her and her chemistry with Bloom, who is always ardent and honest. He’s in fine physical shape, which is good, because at 37 it’s a tad difficult for him to appear 17 or so, and he needs to work hard to keep the energy going to convince us he’s a teenage hot head, but he does achieve it.
Brent Carver is a brilliant actor, and his work in The Kiss of the Spider Woman was astonishing, but he’s not an ideal Friar Lawrence. We expect more weight and wisdom from this man who tries desperately to help the lovers when they are in trouble. The always welcome Jayne Houdyshell is funny and tender as Nurse. Again though, I’m confused. She is spoken of as a contemporary of Lady Capulet. We are told she had a daughter Juliet’s age, who died. With all due respect to this gifted actress, she is not 40 something any longer. Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet as played by the handsome Roslyn Ruff, is tall, regal, elegant and looks like a 40 something diva, dressed stylishly as though she were about to make an entrance at some swanky supper club, either as customer or even as star attraction.
Christian Camargo who has played leading classical roles off Broadway and in London, is a most effective Mercutio, managing to make the language of the past sound contemporary, and knowing how to take stage when it’s his turn. His Queen Mab speech is beautifully formed, and it’s the first time I’ve really understood it. Thank you, Mr. Camargo.
The set by Jesse Polshuck and the costumes by Fabio Toblini made little sense to me. I never knew quite were I was. The balcony scene (exquisitely played by Mr. Bloom and Ms. Rashad) was staged at some sort of construction site, on some sort of platform that extended from Juliet’s bedroom. I’ve never seen anything like it on the streets of New York, but then again this was supposed to be Verona, though it looked like the area of Manhattan before they tore down the tenements to build Lincoln Center. Oh, that ‘s right — that’s where West Side Story was set.
As the two families were well heeled, it was difficult to understand why Nurse seemed to be dressed in sack cloth, and why she seemed to get around town on a bicycle which she seemed always to prefer pushing to riding. I don’t blame her, I assume Verona’s streets would be teeming with vehicles that could do her in.
The play’s the thing of course, and it’s a corker of a story, With two attractive leads in the title roles, this is by no means a waste of time. I’d call it a misguided concept production, but if you’ve never seen this tale of the star crossed lovers, it might serve well. I can’t understand where Mr. Leveaux’ concepts come from. His 2004 staging of Fiddler on the Roof with a miscast Alfred Molina and Randy Graff, which seemed to be set in a Disney version of a shtetl, with full orchestra right there upstage left, was equally confusing and intrusive. And he does believe in odd casting. The actresses in his Fiddler who played the orthodox Jewish Tevye’s three daughters were named Kelly, Murphy and Paoluccio. Excellent singer/actresses all three, but with Mom and Pop played by Ms. Graff and Mr. Molina, somehow it was difficult to realize we were in a shtetl in Mother Russia, one that was about to go through a pogrom. It ran a long time (with cast replacements) but it was known for a time as Goyem On The Roof.
At least this time he’s got two stars who are shining brightly and when the play is Romeo and Juliet, that helps a lot.
Romeo and Juliet is onstage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street, New York, NY 10036. Details and tickets.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF).
Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.
He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.