If you build it, they will come. That seems to be the theory behind the 975-seat replica of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s home base in Stratford-upon-Avon, imported in 46 shipping containers and erected in 15 days inside the Park Avenue Armory. Heading into the second of six weeks, New Yorkers are indeed flocking to the RSC’s five-play summer residency under the joint auspices of the Lincoln Center Festival and the Armory. While it is too early to comment on the overall artistic success of the visit, this “Romeo and Juliet” — as directed by Rupert Goold — is terrific.
How do you indicate the isolation of a pair of teenage star-cross’d lovers surrounded by adults? Goold places Juliet and Romeo on the same set with the others but in a different world — 400 years different. Romeo prowls about in a worn gray hoodie, snapping away on his digital camera and riding a bicycle with florescent reflector strips; Juliet wears color-coordinated Hi Top sneakers. Everyone else is in Elizabethan garb, playing in traditional manner.
What might prove gimmicky turns out to be inspired. This Juliet and Romeo are different from their friends, their parents and the others onstage; they are not ancient characters from a 1597 play but living and breathing children who might just as well be from Generation Z. The choice makes their tragedy all the more relevant: Even Shakespeare’s words, as written, seem to jump the centuries. (Goold does see fit to turn his blood-drenched finale into a “CSI” crime scene, which is perhaps one trick too many.)
This is a bracingly vibrant “Romeo” of fire and steam and pyrotechnic streetfights. Important contributions come from designer Tom Scutt, who keeps the action visually intriguing (and who offers a stunning image for the wedding night scene); fight director Terry King, whose several exhibitions are electrifying; composer Adam Cork, who has a nine-piece ensemble at his disposal; and choreographer Georgina Lamb, whose ball at the Capulets has some of the exuberance of Jerome Robbins’ “Dance at the Gym” from “West Side Story.”
The repertory cast is exemplary, with the success of the affair riding on the shoulders of lovers Mariah Gale (who played Celia in last week’s “As You Like It”) and Sam Troughton (Brutus in the upcoming “Julius Caesar”). Jonjo O’Neill proves an uproarious crowdpleaser as Mercutio, while the family tragedies are especially well played by Christine Entwisle and Richard Katz as the Capulets. Noma Dumezweni provides a striking Nurse.
The RSC engagement comes at a hefty tariff; the official ticket prices do not include a compulsory tax-deductible contribution to Lincoln Center, so what is described as a $200 top is actually $250 (plus the ubiquitous service and facility charges). But this “Romeo and Juliet” is worth every penny. At least one viewer was heard to regret that his children were off at summer camp; one viewing of this “Romeo and Juliet” is likely to leave a present-day teenager hungry to hear more from the Bard.