All Things Entertaining and Cultural
While planning an efficient, economical staging of “Romeo and Juliet” director David Leveaux forgot one crucial thing. You can cut, shorten, or speed up a scene here and there, but you can’t omit romance, atmosphere, and flights of poetry from this Shakespearean work
“Romeo and Juliet” rightfully depends on an audience adoring and sympathizing with its famous star-crossed lovers whose genuine affection and longing for one another have made them an eternal and intercultural symbol of ardent, aching, forbidden, and true love, the tragic figures in the play named after them and the models for other tales of thwarted bliss.
Leveaux’s production, at New York’s Richard Rodgers Theatre, is full of bluster and posing, but except for rare, isolated instances, it never settles down or takes the time to establish a full, textured world for “Romeo and Juliet” or to allow its characters to claim our affection, let alone earn our pity or terror.
Leveaux’s is a “Romeo and Juliet” devoid of feeling. Oration, recitation, or chatter take the place of conversation or direct communication. Sincerity, the cornerstone of any play, is absent. Bonds between Romeo and Juliet remain on Shakespeare’s page and not on the Richard Rodgers stage where Orlando Bloom and Condola Rashad barely convey attraction, let alone ardor. Wonderful actors, Brent Carver and Jane Houdyshell among them, are left to look foolish and aimless. Lesser performers seem totally lost. Occasional grand effects or literal scenic pyrotechnics take the place of mood-enhancing lighting or engrossing pacing. Language, and its meaning, are ignored. Worst of all, Leveaux’s “Romeo and Juliet” exudes no warmth, creates no discernible tension, and conjures no romance, searing or soaring. It’s as if the director decided the audience’s probable familiarity with Shakespeare’s play was enough, that the people watching his staging would supply deep sentiment and social context on their own.
It doesn’t work that way, David. As many a director before you has demonstrated, and you proved in “The Real Thing,” “Electra,” and “The Moon for the Misbegotten,” theater is more than a brisk and facile delivery of written lines. It tells stories of flesh-and-blood people whose plights must capture and sustain our interest. Certainly, “Romeo and Juliet” provides the dialogues, soliloquies, controversy, events, and drama to make a theatrical production deep and redolent. Nothing of any substance is seen on the Richard Rodgers stage. Even fine efforts by Bloom, Christian Camargo, Conrad Kemp, Tracy Sallows, and Justin Guarini cannot bring Leveaux’s “Romeo and Juliet” to life. It is mortally wounded by the time it reaches its second scene and never recovers in spite of some sequences in the second act in which enough quiet and enough attention to Shakespeare’s words prevail to make a scene or speech register with some weight and honest emotion, causing wonder about why that level of quality wasn’t present throughout. Even the ill used Rashad displays the talent that garnered her praise in “Ruined,” “Stick Fly,” and “The Trip to Bountiful” in one of these later passages.
By now, it’s clear the current Broadway staging of “Romeo and Juliet” is a shameful mess. It’s time to look into how it got that way.
Trouble starts at the outset when the actor delivering the prologue, “Two houses, both alike in dignity…,” is barely audible, as if unmiked, and fails to rivet audience attention or create a mood. The production gets no palpable beginning. It’s almost as if the Prologue never appeared, and the play has not started yet.
The next scene, a brawl that disturbs the civil peace of Verona’s streets, is a disorganized hodgepodge in which hot-headed Capulets and Montagues, unable to control their enmity in public, bite their thumbs and deny biting their thumbs, but do so in a, brusque unfocused manner that establishes the intense feud between Juliet and Romeo’s families but, for all its muscularity and intended bravado, fails to set a dramatic tone. Frenzy and energy stand in for purposeful fight choreography, and Leveaux’s production is left at Square One with one possible accomplishment in foreshadowing, a look at Tybalt’s switch blade and the alacrity with which he seems willing to use it.
Matters do not improve when Verona’s prince, Escalus, and the Capulet and Montague elders appear on the scene. Their loud, rambling, unarticulated line readings prevent much meaning or import from having an effect. News is being reported, and we understand it, but words and pronouncements fall prosaically and, once more, create no mood or tension. A sloppy, matter-of-fact way of speaking Shakespeare’s poetry is established and, with little exception, pervades the production. Only Kemp, as Benvolio, manages to speak and act if what he has to say matters and has some emotion attached to it. Sallows, with little to say, gets positive attention for her sincere concern over the whereabouts of Romeo and if he was part of the melee. Her portrayal of Lady Montague will remain a bright spot throughout the production.
As Verona is represented by designer Jesse Poleschuck’s well-conceived and beautifully frescoed wall, one gets the impression Leveaux is setting his production in an undefined period that is past. That idea is belied by Romeo making his entrance in true contemporary Italian fashion, on a motorbike that Bloom seems to have fun cruising across the Rodgers stage, barely missing at one point the corner of a set of steps that leads into the audience.
The motorcycle accomplishes one thing. It allows Bloom to take off the helmet that masks his face and lets the audience see him, so he can hear their applause and cheers without disturbing the action of the play. Otherwise, the bike is just one more loud, hip trapping Leveaux adds on to no avail. You never see the vehicle again, even when Romeo goes to visit Friar Laurence or sets forth to serve out his banishment from Verona. It’s merely window dressing.
Orlando Bloom is not window dressing. Both as a star and an actor, he is a reason for people to see this mounting of “Romeo and Juliet.” Although Bloom does not quite realize the finer, more subtle points that would make him a more realistic, more sympathetic Romeo, he shows the potential for being able to render a more complete, nuanced performance and delivers most of his speeches thoughtfully, albeit as if in a vacuum.
The confident swagger Bloom conveys when he arrives on his motorcycle does not carry through the entire production. His Romeo is more experienced and more worldly than most of his friends, but that is more an attitude Bloom strikes rather than a character trait he will sustain or capitalize on. Bloom can handle Shakespeare’s words and is one the few who seems to recognize the writing is in verse, includes sonnets, and needs careful and portentous expression, but he approaches most speeches as if he is reciting them for a high school English assignment and not for the purpose of revealing Romeo’s soul or making a favorable impression on Juliet.
There are important clues Bloom fails to impart through his lines. For instance, when Romeo is reading the list of guests Lord Capulet wants invited to his masquerade ball, Bloom shows no reaction or trick of voice when he reads the name, Rosaline, the girl that makes him heartsick before he meets Juliet. This is a subtle but serious oversight because the next three minutes of action rely on Romeo, who has been withholding the name of his infatuation, accidently tipping off Benvolio to her identity. By Bloom reading “Rosaline” in the same tone and speed as every other name, Kemp, as Benvolio, is left to act as if he has divined Romeo’s secret, and learned the identity of the woman torturing his friend by ignoring his overtures, by osmosis. Bloom’s neglect in this case may seem small in light of all he has to convey as Romeo, but it is indicative of the careless disjointedness of Leveaux’s production, another sign that Shakespeare, his text, and any sensitivity to dramatic necessities in the script are considered folderol to take or leave.
Bloom’s overall performance is a mixed bag. He does better with his speeches than most, he can concentrate the audience’s attention on what Romeo thinks and feels, and he is physically lithe and full of energy. Bloom, given a different chance, is capable of playing Romeo. In this production, however, his opening scene swagger does not translate to sexiness or attractiveness, his wooing of and declarations of love to Juliet are perfunctory and have no heart or emotion behind them, and his participation in Romeo’s downfall, i.e. the killing of Tybalt, and activities in exile lack the focus and intensity that mars Leveaux’s production in general. Bloom’s talent and potential are ultimately wasted
Fast, lifeless readings that belie poetry or context abound. Even a veteran and able Shakespearean like Brent Carver, usually a master of nuance and clever presentation, is stymied by the pace and toneless deliveries Leveaux seems to prefer.
Scenes with Friar Laurence, the Capulets, and the Nurse tend to wilt in front of you, as actors who know better, race through their lines and read them without expression or impact. I never thought I’d see Roslyn Ruff so ineffective or Jane Houdyshell so unable to bring the right balance of wit and meaning to a scene.
Saddest of all is what happens to Condola Rashad in Leveaux’s hands.
In her last Broadway outing, as the woman who is so friendly and helpful to the wandering Carrie Watts in “The Trip to Bountiful” Rashad scored with a quite, polite, demure performance that used posture and expression as much as language to show her character’s initial wariness and later empathy towards Carrie.
I cannot be sure who made the choices about Rashad’s portrayal of Juliet, but it looks to me as if the actress was told to be mindful of Juliet’s age, 14 or 15, and to play the character as if she was a giddy teenager experiencing a first crush that becomes the first instance of love.
Rashad is so chirpy and adolescent as Juliet, Shakespeare’s beautiful lines and gorgeous poetry are abandoned in her high-pitched, stream-of-conscience readings. My companion asked me if Rashad was “on speed,” and I have to say that is the impression.
Talk about the lack of texture or nuance! Rashad could not wring a jot of meaning, expression, or emotion from Juliet’s entire balcony scene. She looked as if she was doing “Romeo and Juliet” for the Disney Channel. I understand Juliet’s mind might be racing from her first pangs of love, and that she could legitimately jump from thought to thought, but Rashad’s manic, breathless readings convey neither delight in newly discovered love nor restless passion as much as nervous reverie. Her style is comic at a time when wide-eyed romance is imperative. Even her playful badinage with Romeo is more schoolgirl from “Facts of Life” than teasing and arch, yet guided by true affection for her first actual beau.
Physically, the balcony scene is unrealized. Bloom looks out into the house and not towards the balcony as he declaims with clarity, but no feeling, Romeo’s sighs, groans, wishes, and answers to Juliet. Rashad, meanwhile, is a jumpy bundle of nerves, running across the bland industrial scaffolding that serves as the balcony, squatting one minute, laying supine the next, always in motion, and always delivering her lines as if she was in a contest to read the entire Manhattan telephone book in two minutes flat.
At no time did Shakespeare’s contrapuntal sonnets get their due or anything close to it. At no time did the lovers’ words intersect in a harmony that showed that whatever we know about Juliet’s naivete or Romeo’s roving romantic allegiances, this meeting seals a genuine, indelible love between these two worthy people.
The scene plays at flat and as inert as the planking on Juliet’s balcony. It is toneless and purposeless. It offers information in words that are never acted or made dimensional and unmistakable on stage. Bloom and Rashad rarely look at each other. Their eyes never meet. They are talking in the wind, not forging a communion the audience can see as real and worth fighting family and Verona society to realize.
Any interest in Romeo and Juliet, their love, or their plight as children of warring households, is lost. The lovers become moot in their own story. The audience has no reason to care about them. Rashad’s work is so misguided, you wouldn’t care if Juliet died from nervous exhaustion right after the balcony scene and left Romeo to pine once more for Rosaline or whatever woman comes next.
The sad point is Bloom and Rashad never show deep interest in, let alone attraction or love, for each other. As happens throughout Leveaux’s production, Romeo’s notice of Juliet across a dance floor, was curt and had no fire. You don’t see Bloom looking as if he had that special feeling in the pit of the stomach one gets when he or she sees someone who makes a strong romantic impression. The dance in which Romeo and Juliet speak tongue-in-cheek about a palmer’s kiss indicates no burgeoning romance or, more appropriately, love at first sight. Bloom’s Romeo doesn’t try to join Juliet at balcony level, an act that is not a necessity but that adds romance and passion to the sonnet scene. Where is the meat of the play, if not in these scenes? The answer is there is no meat, no solid substance, in this production. At best, you’re offered tofu disguised as the real thing.
“Romeo and Juliet” had been playing for seven weeks by the time I saw it. Presumably, a rehearsal period preceded the shows performed before an audience. In that time, did no one, not even Carver or Ruff, ask about the poetry that is such an important and involving part of Shakespeare’s work? Was no one willing to slow down and say, “Let’s think this scene through. I don’t think we’re inviting the audience to care about our stay in Verona?”
The first acts ends, and you can’t believe you’ve just spent an hour in the world of “Romeo and Juliet.” This slapdash production has robbed Shakespeare’s play of all of its sweetness, tension, and majesty. Rashad has vocally frittered away Juliet’s finest moments. Bloom has proven he can make Romeo’s feelings known but takes no pains to go beyond language in his performance. Only Justin Guarini, in a brief appearance, as Paris has contributed a poised, appreciated Shakespearean turn (although Christian Camargo tries mightily to do so). You have to wonder if you’re in a Broadway theater or in a suburban middle school where students are encountering Shakespeare for the first time.
Basic blocking that would have directed people where to look, and more careful line readings, would have helped this production. Scenes that should play better go awry because they seem chaotic instead of focused.
Christian Camargo is a witty and nimble Mercutio, but much of the quality his smart diction and meaningful readings is lost by the frenetic activity and rapid pace on which Leveaux seems to insist.
Only three times in the entire production do things slow or a point that a scene has impact. When Guarini, as Paris, comes to ask Lord and Lady Capulet for Juliet’s hand in marriage, the sequence plays sweetly and directly. You feel as if the production had taken on some polish, albeit for 90 seconds. In the scene in which Romeo buys poison from the apothecary, Bloom and Spencer Plachy share a quiet, human transaction that is direct but conveys the fateful gravity of the passage. Most gratifyingly of all, towards the end of the play, in the scene in which Juliet contemplates all that happened, and the step she is about to take in feigning death to live securely with Romeo, Condola Rashad is deliberate, expressive, and moving in a way she had not been before. The actress takes the opportunity to display the talent she has exhibited so gloriously in previous shows, and for the first time, this “Romeo and Juliet” affected me. I cried for both Rashad’s plaintive and dramatically astute reading and for finally seeing what a wonderful Juliet she could have been.
Normally, at this point, I would write about various actors’ contributions to the production. Actors first attracted me to the theater, and I enjoy writing about their gifts. Alas, this “Romeo and Juliet” stymies the talent of some of Broadway’s most reliable performers. It would be unfair to Chuck Cooper, Roslyn Ruff, Geoffrey Owens, or Brent Carver to make this show any more than an exception in careers that have earned these actors nothing but credit and appreciation.
The most consistently positive element in the production is David van Tieghem’s original music, particularly the moody cello passages towards the end of the show. Van Tieghem is the percussionist. Tahirah Whittington is the cellist.
“Romeo and Juliet” runs through January 12 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th Street, in New York. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 pm. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $146.75 to $88.75 and can be ordered by calling 800-745-3000 or going online to www.ticketmaster.com.