In this mega-season of big-name productions of Shakespeare (14 at last count), one of the most anticipated is unlikely to be the most satisfying. David Leveaux’s Romeo and Juliet, now at the Richard Rodgers Theater, stars a dreamy-eyed Orlando Bloom opposite an even wider-eyed Condola Rashad (apparently teenagers express attraction this way). But in a play where chemistry is everything, Bloom and Rashad are about as exciting as isolated molecules. Chaste and wholesome to a fault, they barely manage to spark a reaction.
By the looks of things, though, Leveaux is going for something more explosive: Montagues are pitted against Capulets along racial lines (the former are white; the latter black), costume designer Fabio Toblini has put the young hoods in a leather/denim urban look somewhere between 80s rock and West Side Story, flames dance across Jesse Poleshuck’s minimalist set and the carnival-masked Capulets engage in a ritualistic dance. In the absence of much passion between the lead couple, Leveaux seems determined to make it sexy any way he can.
The opening scenes draw pretty clearly the shape of what’s to come. While still languishing for the beautiful Rosaline, Bloom’s Romeo gives a dry run of the lover he will be to Juliet: head cocked to one side, gaze in the clouds, sweat-dampened bangs tossed seriously aside (William Turner’s female fans will not be disappointed). When he finally spies his true lady at the Capulets’ ball, the kiss he plants on her is a few full minutes of sloppy adolescent making-out.
The fast pacing keeps things moving, but while this spares us some of the effusiveness that productions of the “greatest love story ever told” can fall into, it also exacerbates the apparent insouciance of the lovers: in that same kiss scene, the speed with which the couple finds each other and falls hopelessly in love feels almost cartoonish. It’s hard to imagine they could marry and kill themselves in just three more acts.
If there is danger anywhere in this production, it doesn’t come from the gangs’ knife play or any poison prepared for the lovers. It lies rather with Leveaux’s attention-getting casting choice. At first glance, Capulets and Montagues are cut from the same cloth: two powerful families with a senseless blood feud between them. But while we’d like to watch color-blind, as we could with a mix of races in each family, we can’t really ignore that Leveaux has deliberately set white Montagues opposite black Capulets, due to a number of other choices.
On the one hand the genial Montagues sport mostly harmless cues of white youth culture: Mercutio (Christian Camargo, who gives the only libidinous performance of the evening) is a hip-grinding, pseudo-Sid Vicious in skinny black jeans, leather jacket and spiky hair, Bloom’s red Dr. Martens and motorcycle evoke a mild-mannered James Dean and none of the clan puts much heat into their part of the rumble, preferring to occupy a higher moral ground (not for nothing do they always appear before a huge imitation of an early Renaissance fresco depicting Christ and the apostles). On the other hand, the robe-and-sandal clad Capulets seem to belong to a fierce tribal kingdom: when they aren’t swaying around a pole of fire in the ball scene (a mystifying bit of scenography), an imposing Lady Capulet in gold arm bands (Roslyn Ruff) calls for Romeo’s blood to flow, Capulet himself (Chuck Cooper) wields a tyrannical authority over his daughter’s marriage rights, even pulling her by her hair across the stage at one point, and Juliet makes prostrate displays of submission to them both. One of the clan’s guards is even dressed in what resembles a colonial military uniform. It looks a little like Dahomey vs the Upper East Side.
Of course, Leveaux didn’t invent the Capulets’ refusal to stop the feud; that’s what Shakespeare wrote, and their unwillingness to forgive and forget Tybalt’s murder sets in motion the events leading to the lovers’ double suicide. But what if the Montagues had been black and the Capulets white? Leveaux’s casting raises the ghosts of some uncomfortable racial stereotypes, with lingering signifiers of power and morality. To my mind, it’s an unnecessary and unfortunate complication that undermines everything else that happens on stage.
Unnecessary, because the famously star-crossed lovers already pose a number of challenges to directors. First, there’s the need for actors who can carry the leading roles while looking like the adolescents imagined by Shakespeare. Second is striking the right balance between the play’s celebration of a frankly unrealistic, head-over-heels love and a modern audience’s skepticism regarding the total communion of two souls. Yet another would be the challenge of making one of Shakespeare’s most famous and least sophisticated plays fresh and smart. The decision to cast Orlando Bloom in the lead role might have seemed like an efficient way to approach all three problems; 1) Bloom’s undeniable youthful charm allows the 36 year old actor to step effortlessly into the role of a 15 year old boy; 2) his most famous, swashbuckling role in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy is a reminder that Bloom himself knows better than to identify with Romeo; and 3) his addition to this production certainly lends the play a contemporary face.
So, yes, there’s a lot to like if you’re just interested in watching handsome youths declaim their love in Shakespeare’s wonderfully turned verses. I should also say that Rashad sparkles throughout: the epitome of young beauty and innocence. As long as there are teenagers and romantics in the world (and there were certainly a few of both in the audience the night I attended), the innocence of Romeo and Juliet and their dedication to an ideal love will always strike a chord. That’s something at least.