Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Romeo and Juliet (CSC)

CSC's Romeo and Juliet is stripped down,
sometimes not just aesthetically
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Shakespeare may work best when we recognize ourselves in his plays. In the Classic Stage production of Romeo and Juliet (not to be confused with the entertaining-yet-bland version on Broadway) director Tea Alagiç finds a modern American city in Shakespeare’s Italianate setting. Through brisk strokes—and helped especially by Clint Ramos’ character-at-a-glance costuming—Alagiç sketches the diversity of class, race, sexuality, and maturity (both age and attitude) that Shakespeare has invented. Yet paradoxically, each scene’s location is as generic as Verona is specific. Alagiç and Marsha Ginsberg set the stage in a minimalist style: an empty space, supplemented by a few pieces of Ikea’s modernist furniture and backed by a white cyclorama that lighting designer Jason Lyons colors subtly to accent the scenes.

The minimalist tactic is mostly successful, though it reaches a baffling extremity in the streetfight between Mercutio and Tybalt, in which guts get spilled though no weapons are visible. And it takes chutzpah to stage the Balcony Scene without any disparity in elevation whatsoever. A careful pruning of Shakespeare’s script brings momentum and urgency: Romeo cries “I am fortune’s fool!”, smash to blackout, catch your breath at intermission. Yet the production is more intellectually stimulating than it is emotionally involving. Typical is the Capulet masquerade, which puts Romeo in a giant Pooh head. This adds a hilarious visual element to a familiar. It also subverts the archetypal scene of love-at-first-sight and enlarges Juliet’s character. This Romeo still falls in love with Juliet’s face, but it’s his words that she falls for first. But though the scene’s formatted (famously) as a shared sonnet, there’s little of the lovers’ emotional and linguistic coupling.

This production adds an especially adorable note
to the meet-cute lovers Romeo and Juliet
(photo: Joan Marcus) 
Alagiç’s design concept forces the dramatic burden onto the company. In delivering the verse, they find a balance between poetic recitation and dialogue. Sometimes the metaphors pop into clarity—especially those involving sex—while other times the sense is obscured. The characterizations are solid but rarely exceptional; Daphne Ruben-Vega’s Nurse is typical, seeming to work outside her comfort zone but with increasing confidence. And the production’s only outright misfire is its Friar Lawrence, Daniel Davis, who plays in the plummy, pseudo-classical style of ye old Gielgud. On the other hand, T.R. Knight (late of Los Angeles and Grey’s Anatomy) totally inhabits his role as Mercutio. He plays the gallant as a coked-up hipster, and his delivery of the Mab speech has the itchy rant of one line too many.

But this production, finally, is about its Juliet. Romeo and Juliet may make the stage reputation of Elizabeth Olsen (who won acting awards for Martha Marcy May Marlene, and who’s set to become a Hollywood starlet since getting cast in the Avengers sequel). Olsen plays Juliet as a city girl in the Manhattan mold: smart, articulate, and worldwise, possessed of a keen sense of irony that’s undercut by her teenaged volatility. She lives every moment of the character, seeming to discover both the thought and emotion that the verse discloses. Julian Cihi, as her paramour, tosses his Byronic locks with passionate intensity; his Romeo’s a bit of a naïf, old-fashioned on its own but it offsets this Juliet nicely. But it’s Olsen’s performance is that scintillates. It’s one that New York-based Shakespeare lovers shouldn’t miss.

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