I am far from a traditionalist when it comes to Shakespeare, but I challenge anyone to justify restaging the Capulet party as a half rave, half middle school dance, with Romeo (Julian Cihi) in the middle dressed up as Winnie the Pooh. Perhaps director Tea Alagić wanted to emphasize the youth of Shakespeare’s characters—but in that case, she might have considered casting an actress who isn’t a decade older than Juliet (Elizabeth Olsen).
Of course, Shakespeare Lite has become endemic in a theatrical world that would rather direct the plays for those who don’t like Shakespeare than for Bardolators. Physical humor steamrolls over verbal humor and sexual puns emphasized with emphatic gestures just in case anyone in the back row didn’t realize that when Romeo says, “She’ll not be hit / With Cupid’s arrow,” the word hit can be read as a euphemism for sex.
Granted, things aren’t all bad over at the Classic Stage Company. Ms. Alagić, in fact, has directed the most affecting version of the fight between Mercutio (T.R. Knight) and Tybalt (Dion Mucciacito) I have ever seen. The two circle each other like boxers or lovers, blood streaking out of their bodies without any identifiable weapons causing these injuries—they seem to wound simply by touch. Daniel Davis, playing Friar Lawrence, has a pleasing, rich basso voice and a good sense of the language. And Kathryn Meisle, a Lady Capulet who smokes e-cigarettes and wears a pink pant suit and leopard skin heels, hits the right blend of trashy and vicious; she is a kind of Real Housewife of Verona.
Still, these are ultimately periphery successes in what is an otherwise disappointing production. Mr. Knight, who is occasionally adequate, completely tanks Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech (which, if done well, should be worth the price of admission alone). Furthermore, the two leads are thoroughly lifeless: Mr. Cihi does nothing to distinguish himself from a competent high school actor, while Ms. Olsen speaks as if she hasn’t absorbed the meaning of anything she says, reading her lines like an uptalking actress on the Disney Channel; in an interview with Broadway World, she calls Juliet a “strong young woman,” which, depending on how you feel, is either a lazy reading of the text or a genuinely offensive position to take.
Ms. Alagić claims her experiences in Bosnia informed her direction of this play: “It is very clear after twenty years now since the civil war happened, that actually the war was the way of my parents’ generation, not my generation. So my generation felt lost and it took us years to understand why it happened … That hate and continuation of conflict keeps going.” This sounds like an interesting perspective that might have informed an interesting Romeo & Juliet. Unfortunately, the production onstage is far less deliberate, far less consistent, and not really worthy of the CSC.