Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review: Romeo and Juliet (Broadway)

Aside from Orlando Bloom on the marquee, the most notable feature of the 2013 Broadway Romeo and Juliet—the one that you should know before you see it—is that director David Leveaux and his casting director (J.V. Mercanti) have cast black actors in the Capulet roles and white ones to play the Montagues. This addition of melanin to Shakespeare’s tragedy is clever, albeit in a juvenile way. It suggests that Leveaux wants to use Shakespearean drama at least partly to give perspective on current events. Presumably he’s thinking about the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the arrest of Cornel West, the stop-and-frisk policies of Mayor Bloomberg, the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Civil Rights Act, and indeed the whole Republican Party’s stance towards President Obama.

His concept could work if it were rooted in a mythic approach to the play. In that case, the catharsis would serve as a promise of, or even just a plea for, a way forward from the turbulence of our current state of affairs. But Leveaux basically ignores the setting except as it affects the lovers’ selves and the basic mechanics of plot. This Verona is abstract, little more than atmosphere, and any specificity gets credited to Shakespeare. There’s no sense that the marriage of Juliet to Romeo might have healed the civil wound, nor that their double-suicide will purge the body politic.

In its defense, this R&J does involve
a mixed-race couple, which is still
taboo on many stages
(photo: Carol Rosegg)

Instead, Leveaux’s production is interested in how passion affects the two lovers. One of its strongest and best attributes is its sense of momentum: a heavily-edited script delivers the play in 150 minutes (plus intermission). Scenes follow one another without pause, actors enter on their colleagues’ heels. It’s especially striking how the action occurs within a week’s time, maybe as short as four days. Though Leveaux cuts plenty from the script, he (and maybe an uncredited dramaturg) retains its careful marking of day and night. In this version, the lovers see death as a means to gain eternity, to stop time.

But the hurried pace ends up serving the show poorly. Romeo opens the play mooning over another woman, applying the formulaic terms of love poetry. But in the role, Bloom delivers only the gist of the poetry. This means that his expressions of depth and grandeur sound little different from the verse he’d rattled off earlier. Similarly, Condola Rashad’s Juliet starts the play wide-eyed, writing “naïve” so broadly the balconies can read it. But she doesn’t show how her feelings grow more mature over the play’s passage. Rashad’s J is one who makes that choice because it’s what she’s read in books, not because she’s the embodiment of the tale. That’s a tragedy, but it’s not as rich or complex as the one Shakespeare wrote of a girl who becomes a woman and who chooses love over life knowingly. Leveaux and company hurry past any nuance, delivering a production that's accessible but shallow, pretty but unmoving.

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