You can do a lot of things to “Romeo and Juliet” — and many have tried to turn the star-crossed duo into symbols of various kinds and causes. But without a pair of lovers to believe in, not to mention care about, everything else is moot.
Helmer Will Frears puts a hard-driving contempo spin on the work by setting it in a kind of Verona Vice world, filled with gangs of slackers, punks and posers, sporting neck tattoos, Mohawks and attitude. The concept, while hardly new (just ask Baz Luhrmann), is as valid as any as a starting point. Or it would be, if it weren’t for the fact that there’s a lack of heart, or at least a discernible passion, in the show’s title thesps: Emmy Rossum and up-and-comer Austin Lysy.
Rossum’s limited legit experience is evident in her too-sweet, ever-smiling perf, which makes Juliet a one-note romantic, robbing her of intelligence, purpose and power. Rossum is lovely to look at, but her speeches are as shallow as her breath control as she speeds through her lines (the easier not to dwell on such complicated things as meaning).
This Juliet misses the growth of the character as she turns from innocent schoolgirl to a dynamic, self-possessed woman empowered by her newfound love.
Perhaps Rossum’s thin take is meant to indicate her Romeo is hardly the man to rock one’s world.
Lysy’s too-cool-for-words stance is matched by his too-cool-for-words delivery. This indifferent, unengaged Romeo even keeps the passion level on low, surely a novel interpretation of one of the world’s greatest love stories.
There is little difference between this Romeo’s feelings for the fair Rosaline and his love for Juliet. Their first meeting here is just another pickup at a dance. The balcony scene lacks desire, humor or energy. (No libidinous terrace-climbing here.)
And when Romeo has to leave Juliet’s bed for his escape into an uncertain future, it’s as if he were heading to the mall to hang out with the boys, rather than to banishment from his beloved. Indeed, he seems to be in a rush to get the hell out of there. (Ditto for his curtain call.)
Frears’ entire production seems on a fast track to nowhere, as if it wanted to get through the language, poetry and significance as quickly as possible in order to get to the fight scenes, dances and music.
The two leads aren’t alone in their bad choices and poor execution. Kristine Nielsen gives an over-the-top, crude, cartoony perf as the Nurse, too often going for some guffaws at the expense of the script, even at what should be some of the play’s most poignant and powerful moments.
Enid Graham’s Lady Capulet is flat, lost and listless, having little relation to her daughter, husband or nephew Tybalt (Remy Auberjonois). Benjamin Walker’s Mercutio is also sound and fury without point or connection to anyone else onstage. (For no apparent reason, he goes to the Capulet ball in a what-not-to-wear dress, pearls, slacks and boots.)
Bill Camp as Friar Laurence and Daniel Oreskes as Capulet at least know how to nail a Shakespeare line with meaning and power, even if their characters are being played big or creepy. Greg Hildreth also shows understanding of character and text in an honest perf as Benvolio.
Production gets little help from the design team: Takeshi Kata’s set fails to serve the play’s multiple locales and needs, and costumer Jenny Mannis is equally confused about time and place.
Michael Friedman, however, provides a hard-rock score that nicely handles the play’s prologue (well sung by rocker Lisa Birnbaum).