Wednesday, September 4, 2013

'Romeo and Juliet': Star-Crossed Lovers Run Into Star-Crossed Acting Styles

If music be the food of love, play on.

Oops.  Wrong play.  But the opening line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night would well serve the production of Romeo and Juliet now in previews at the Richard Rodgers Theater.

Under David Leveaux’s somewhat muddy direction, with an odd mix of contemporary and classical elements, this Romeo and Juliet is suffused with music—a veritable soundtrack, much of it percussive or electronic (two musicians are credited in the program—cellist Tahirah Whittington and percussionist David Van Tieghem).  At times, the music does complement the onstage proceedings, especially in the scene at the Capulets’ party where the title characters meet and fall in love; at other times it is merely intrusive. 

Actually, the music should emanate from the performance of Shakespeare’s words, which is where the actors come in. 

Romeo is played by Orlando Bloom, who is perhaps best known for portraying the elf prince Legolas in the Lord of the Rings films.  Although he hasn’t done a lot of stage work, it is clear he has been well trained in classical performance in his native England.  Even from the balcony, where I sat, I had no trouble at all hearing or understanding him. 

The only other actor whose diction is a match for the language of the play is Chuck Cooper as Lord Capulet.  Cooper, a terrific actor so brilliant in last year’s revival of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, has my early nod for a Tony nomination. The play boasts fine performances, as well, by Brent Carver as Friar Laurence and Jayne Houdyshell as Nurse. 

Playing Juliet is Condola Rashad, a wonderfully naturalistic actress.  I have found her to be pitch perfect in everything I’ve seen her in:  from Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, to Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, to Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful. Here, she has the character of Juliet down pat, but, unfortunately, she hasn’t quite mastered the particular vocal demands of Shakespearean English.

Some early buzz about the production has suggested a lack of romantic or sexual spark between the star-crossed actors.  I would argue, however, that it is their acting styles that are distancing them. Bloom’s performance—even with its expressive physicality (he comes riding in on a motorcycle--really?!!)—is in the classical mode, while Rashad’s is driven by her emotional understanding of the character.  I hasten to add that both may grow in their roles over time. 

Getting back to the production itself, Mr. Leveaux, the director, has opted for a quasi-West Side Story approach, with gang-like behavior across racial lines (the Montagues are white; the Capulets are black.)  Yet this modern take comes and goes, and we seem to shuffle back and forth in time, depending on the scene and the performances.

All in all, I would say that despite its flaws, this Romeo and Juliet is worth the visit for some very strong performances by the supporting cast, and for the opportunity to see a full-scale Broadway production (the last time was over 25 years ago) of one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays. Take the teenagers!  
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