Love isn’t always pretty. It’s certainly not in ART’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” which presents a violent, immoral and anxious world in which romance has no chance. Think Courtney and Kurt on a very bad trip. As visualized by Israeli helmer Gadi Roll, hearts aren’t the only things that are for stomping. Shakespeare gets pummeled, too, with upended scenes, crazed characters and screamed speeches.
Roll stepped in when director Janos Szasz ankled to pursue a film gig (that subsequently didn’t materialize). Then the production’s Romeo fled due to “artistic differences” with Roll (smart thesp) and Mickey Solis — a standout last year in Szasz’s “Desire Under the Elms” — was recruited on short notice.
But time and casting are not the fundamental problems with this hysterically blind production. ART has a rep as an artistic home for extreme interpretations of classics, but here the Bard’s ever-pliable work is stretched into three hours of conceit with little attention to clarity and craft.
In Roll’s dark world, love is hopeless, destined to be destroyed by a cruel society. The special connection between the title characters is not manifested here in any significant way, other than an external fierceness that fits right in with the mood of a turbulent Verona.
The titular characters are desperate, ravaged figures to begin with, and their transcending love doesn’t indicate any particular depth of humanity or hope. Both thesps are simply overwhelmed with the directorial marching orders.
The pairing of Romeo and Juliet (Annika Boras) here doesn’t seem inspiring, cosmic or even particularly passionate. Their initial fateful encounter is a so-what moment lost in an elaborately choreographed hip-hop-vogueing-minuet number at the Capulet party. In the balcony scene, it’s Juliet who has to do all the ladder-climbing, while Romeo woos without breaking a sweat from below. The morning-after-sex scene is just callow.
Juliet’s Romeo fixation is as much a bratty protest against her awful parents as it is a transformative discovery of the poetic soul. Romeo offers plenty of proclamations of love, but they’re not much different from his hysterical ravings about an earlier girlfriend. This new true love doesn’t do much to change the attitude, speech or strut of either Romeo or Juliet. (Juliet stomps about from beginning to end in her tall boots with the delicacy of Calamity Jane. But then again, no one seems particularly “light afoot” in this production.)
A few veteran actors from the resident company manage to slip in artfully some humanity while adhering to Roll’s hardened vision. Karen MacDonald makes Juliet’s nurse a somewhat sympathetic figure, while Thomas Derrah gives a sensitive perf as a tough-love Friar. Both also have the wherewithal to speak the verse with understanding and truth, something most of the cast lacks.
Figuring among the most misbegotten Shakespeare interpreters in recent memory are Marc Aden Gray, who presents nothing but a succession of snarls and rants as Tybalt; Elizabeth Hess, who makes Lady Capulet a deranged, nymphomaniacal hag; and John Campion, as a stuttering Escales, a royal heart attack waiting to happen.
Casting Molly Ward as Benvolio only shows that a woman can belong to a senseless mob, too. Che Ayende does better by default as Mercutio but doesn’t explore the depth of character, only its surface sheen. The comic gifts of Remo Airaldi, however, are more welcome than ever as the servant Peter in a production fairly free of humor, warmth and wit.
The visuals strive to be cool in a “Blade Runner”-meets-Beckett sort of way. Riccardo Hernandez’s industrial-strength design features a long, rectangular, ash-filled playing space (bordered by steel grating) with aud positioned on both sides. The effect is like watching a runway show — especially considering the long-gaited struts, bitchy attitude and meaningless posing of most of the cast, outfitted in Kasia Maimone’s sexy-chic, black-is-best costumes. D.M. Wood adds some stylish lighting, which sets the scene for greatness that never arrives.