By Gillie Houston Special to The Chronicle
The great challenge for any production of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is to make fresh the play’s material, which is already known exhaustively by every audience. While performed prolifically in regional theater, the famed tragedy was last seen on Broadway over three decades ago. Thus, the new revival, which opened Sept. 19, had the opportunity to reinvent and revitalize the Shakespearean classic for New York audiences of a new generation.
Director David Leveaux, a five-time Tony Award nominee, packs his production with modern, minimalist scenery and 21st century garb to give the appearance of freshness. However, at times this modernity feels less like an artistic interpretation and more like a ploy for ticket sales, giving into a tired conception of the modern theater – that audiences can’t enjoy Shakespeare without the hip trappings of modern life.
The new production stars celebrated stage actress Condola Rashad, who was last seen in a Tony-nominated performance in “Stick Fly,” as Juliet. Broadway newcomer and marquee-candy Orlando Bloom plays the leading role of Romeo.
Rashad gives a sweet and fragile performance, emphasizing the extreme youth of the heroine. Arriving on stage in shades of pure white, she is the picture of freshness and adolescent purity. Though Rashad is captivating in her appearance, her voice, light and high, often fails to resonate properly through the 1,300-seat Richard Rogers Theater or to pull off the more dramatic moments of the text.
Orlando Bloom gives a surprisingly stirring turn as a more rugged, rebellious Romeo – he arrives onstage via motorcycle and pulls off a helmet to reveal his face, much to the joy and applause of the enthusiastic, star-struck audience. Bloom demonstrates a keen understanding of the Shakespearian language and his performance is a fine marriage between the classic and the modern. At the same time, he doesn’t fall too far into the bad-boy trope.
While both of the stars give winning stand-alone performances, their pairing is one of the more troubling aspects of this production. Rashad portrays Juliet with the vibrant youth of a 13-year-old, as originally intended in Shakespeare’s text. But Bloom, with his motorcycle gear and seductive tone, is an older interpretation of Romeo, much more a man than a teenaged boy. Therefore, at the fault of the director is making their chemistry limited and their credibility as lovers thin.
Accompanying the two leads is a talented supporting cast. Broadway vet Jayne Houdyshell, who brings warmth and vitality to the comic-relief role of Juliet’s Nurse, and Christian Camargo, as a vibrant Mercutio.
The actors perform on a stylish and sparse set – designed by Jesse Poleshuck – adorned with moving panels of graffiti, which are meant to evoke a gritty modernity so often utilized in recent productions of the tragedy. While the set is lovely, it at times feels overcrowded with unnecessary elements that create a symbolically heavy mise-en-scène, weighing down the production. Scenic elements include a large, tolling bell that is raised and lowered intermittently, thin panels of fire and a white dove that first graces the stage flying freely, only to later be caged in – an all-too-obvious symbol.
As a whole, Leveaux’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” can most properly be summed up in one word: pretty. A champion of the power of the visual, the director utilizes two stunning stars and a lovely, eye-catching set that makes for a pleasing experience for the aesthetically attuned audience.
However, under the veneer of this loveliness, there are certain elements lacking. While this performance attempts to present “Romeo and Juliet” in a fresh way – the symbol-heavy scenes, somewhat tired modern trappings and uneven acting choices leave it lacking in the most fundamental element of the famed play: the stirring chemistry and desperate yearning of foolish, young love.