And to think, we were worried that this Romeo is pushing 40.
Age is the least of the troubles in David Leveaux's misbegotten revival of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, starring international movie star Orlando Bloom and two-time Tony Award nominee Condola Rashad in the title roles. We're better off calling this Broadway production at the Richard Rodgers Theatre "R&J Lite" — all of the major bullet points are there (they meet, they marry, people kill one another, they die), but the text has been trimmed within an inch of its life. Combine that with a series of inexplicable directorial choices and you have the makings of a wildly problematic ride.
Right off the bat it should be noted that the Capulet family members are portrayed by black actors, while the Montague clan is white. Whether this is the source of the "ancient grudge" that sets the play's tragic events in motion is anyone's guess; the question of ethnicity in the context of this production is not addressed. This ends up one of many inexplicable and detrimental choices that appear throughout the production.
Leveaux, his actors, and his designers give Shakespeare's text a contemporary reading, though without a dedicated time or place. Jesse Poleshuck's set vaguely evokes a Middle Eastern desert, with sand scattered around the playing area, but the centerpiece is a crumbling concrete wall, graffiti-tagged as a nod to the real-life Juliet's Wall in Italy, where young couples post notes to keep their flame eternal. Fabio Toblini's costumes are fairly standard 21st century American urban-wear — blue jeans, hoodies, and the like. David Van Tieghem's musical underscoring, which blends prerecorded tracks with a pair of live musicians (of whom he is one), creeps under the dialogue and pushes the work further into melodrama.
As the star-crossed lovers who meet a tragic end, Bloom and Rashad certainly look pretty. She spends most of the production flouncing around shoeless in a willowy nightgown, while he makes his first entrance riding a motorcycle, donning ripped skinny jeans. At one point, he bares his chest. But chemistry? Not so much. In a way, Romeo and Juliet hinges on a tension between the couple; after all, not only do they fall instantly in love, but they die for each other. With the stern and cynical Bloom and the wide-eyed, naïve Rashad, that tension just isn't there. When Romeo and Juliet meet cute at that masked ball, it truly looks as though they — as actors — are meeting for the first time.
Filling the supporting roles are some of the stage's great contemporary character actors. On the Capulet line, Chuck Cooper and Jayne Houdyshell are perfect fits for Lord Capulet and Juliet's Nurse, and while they don't stretch themselves to new heights of greatness, they deliver the text in a commanding manner and imbue their roles with the strengths that make them the unique performers they are. (Houdyshell, in particular, has a charming bit of business with a tin of Altoids.) In less juicy roles, Roslyn Ruff and Corey Hawkins make strong impressions as Lady Capulet and Tybalt, though they're both a bit too broad. Justin Guarini fares quite well as Paris, Juliet's prearranged husband, but that role becomes one of the production's major sacrifices (spoiler alert: even his death is cut).
The Montague line is where things get weird. Christian Camargo makes for an energetic Mercutio, bouncing all over the place and filling the character with such an invincibility that when he's fatally stabbed in the stomach, he delivers his dying lines standing upright, like he wasn't even scratched. Brent Carver, returning to Broadway after far too long an absence, plays Friar Laurence like a hippie stoner, sporting an oversize hoodie and Birkenstocks. Spitting out his lines in double time, he barely even takes a breath and most of the time we can't understand a word he says. Their characterizations are downright bizarre, but they make the most interesting choices onstage.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that it's just lugubrious. Not even the fights, choreographed by Thomas D. Schall, manage to get the blood flowing. Like the sand in the hourglass that Juliet uses to count down the time until Romeo returns, we, too, find ourselves counting down the hours.
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