In mid-September, a painfully boring revival of William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet opened on Broadway, courtesy of director David Leveaux and attractive but miscast actors Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad. Less than a month later, we have another production of this romantic tragedy, an off-Broadway outing via Classic Stage Company and rising theater-maker Tea Alagić.
Alas, Alagić's contemporary reading, starring Elizabeth Olsen and Julian Cihi, is just as messy as the one at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, with conflicting performance styles, bizarre tonal shifts, and cast members who don't always show a mastery of the text. Still, this one, for better or for worse, is endlessly fascinating (and not always in a positive way). It may not offer much in the way of substance to chew on, but you're never once bored. And that automatically puts it ahead of its main-stem competitor.
Where Leveaux lacked concept (his began and ended by dividing the Capulets and Montagues by the color of their skin), Alagić has both too much and too little. In CSC's production newsletter, she likens her staging to performance art. "It's a space. It's architectural," Alagić says of Marsha Ginsberg's set, a large blank wall with a few chairs and a hardwood floor that evokes a high school gymnasium. It is "A space where one can create a performance. And performance is coming out of the artists on stage."
So in short, what we're watching could be just about anything and therefore you can make up your own mind as to what's going on. I took the concept to be a Catholic high school's production of Romeo & Juliet, starring the young actors of the drama program and a few of their teachers, performed in the gym and given a contemporary treatment so as to engage the skeptical students who don't think Shakespeare is as hip as Bieber.
That would certainly explain why the Capulet's masked ball features Romeo (Cihi) in a Winnie the Pooh head and the Nurse (Daphne Rubin-Vega) dressed as C-3PO by way of a Terminator robot (the very-2013 costumes are designed by Clint Ramos). It would also explain why Dion Mucciacito turns Tybalt into a mixed martial artist. And what can we do to substitute scary knives in the fight scenes? Use blood packets created by the art department.
Interpreting Alagić's production this way is fun for a while, but mostly just head-scratching. There's no clear throughline; the concepts are abandoned after the intermission when the actors are suddenly allowed to just…act. And it's unfortunately clear that concept came before performance coaching.
Olsen, the sister of superstar twins Mary-Kate and Ashley, luminously plays up Juliet's naïveté, but that's the only note she strikes. As Romeo, Cihi fades too far into the background. Mucciacito is a scary Tybalt; nothing more, nothing less. In the great role of Mercutio, T.R. Knight (late of TV's Grey's Anatomy), garners laughs for rushing through his lines like he has a train to catch, but you can't understand a single word he says.
Meanwhile, David Garrison makes for a beautifully spoken and menacing Lord Capulet, a tuxedo-wearing mafioso with an e-cigarette-smoking, combative Real Housewife for a spouse (Kathryn Meisle, in a neon-pink pantsuit and leopard-print heels). Rubin-Vega turns the Nurse into a feisty Nuyorican dame with a thick accent, delivering a performance that is nearly inspired. Perhaps the strongest cast member, bar none, is Daniel Davis as Friar Laurence, who uses his gorgeous speaking voice to practically make love to every syllable of Shakespeare's words.
Is Romeo & Juliet that difficult to get right? It doesn't seem like it would be, though given two flawed productions back to back, maybe it is.