The kids are all right. That’s the takeaway from “Romeo and Juliet,” with movie heartthrob Orlando Bloom and ingenue stunner Condola Rashad as Shakespeare’s star-cross’d lovers. The interracial casting of the feuding Montague and Capulet clans sounds bold, but has surprisingly little dramatic impact. The tragedy also survives its gimmicky update to modern-ish times. Bottom line: This enduring love story stands or falls on the appeal of its lovers, and the young stars bring a sweet passion — if no ear whatsoever for romantic poetry — to their immortal roles.
Helmer David Leveaux (“Nine”) appears to have gone out of his way to disguise the fact that this is (horrors!) a 16th-century Elizabethan drama and the characters are speaking (eek!) blank verse.
The most distracting feature of Jesse Poleshuck’s set design is the huge metal bell with the aggressively loud tone that hangs just above the actors’ heads. The sizzling flames that periodically shoot across the stage and streak up vertical rods are also hard to ignore. A giant mural in the style of Duccio, depicting stern-faced Renaissance figures in stark profile, is actually quite wonderful — except for the steel pegs that turn it into a climbing wall for wanton youth with nothing better to do.
Some of the gimmicky staging, although arbitrary, is harmless: Romeo makes his noisy entrance on a beast of a motorcycle. Juliet delivers a pensive soliloquy from her precarious seat on a swing. Juliet’s nurse wheels a bicycle to her meeting with Romeo. The Capulets don bizarre masks and perform a primitive dance at their elegant ball. Juliet’s bier is lifted from the family crypt and winched up to the rafters.
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Real damage is done, though, in the balcony scenes, in which the traditional Juliet balcony is replaced by a rough wooden platform that resembles a gangplank. To their great credit, Bloom and Rashad stay focused and manage to convince us that the young lovers only have eyes for each other. This Romeo and Juliet touch a lot and kiss as though they mean it. But more than passion, it’s the joyous sense of discovery that makes their love scenes so lovely — and that intimacy is precisely what’s compromised by all the running and leaping and jumping and other jittery movement.
Whenever action is actually called for, as it surely is in the street brawls between the warring Montagues and Capulets, fight director Thomas Schall takes care of business with some fast footwork and tricky swordplay. But when there’s no obvious need for it, this relentless physicality takes a toll on the language of the play, which the younger members of the company don’t seem to trust, and only Brent Carver, as Friar Laurence, seems to savor.
Christian Camargo cuts a fine figure as the irrepressible Mercutio, but the way he runs from the voluptuous images in his Queen Mab speech, you’d think they were killer bees. Once poetry is off the table, everyone seems to breathe easier. Chuck Cooper can fling his verbal thunderbolts as the powerful patriarch of the Capulet clan, and Roslyn Ruff can be as fierce as she likes as Lady Capulet. And since nobody expects Juliet’s nurse to spout blank verse, Jayne Houdyshell can be down-to-earth and kind of funny in this warm maternal role.
The ones who really suffer from this strange resistance to Shakespeare’s lyricism are Bloom and Rashad, who do good work when they’re not hanging from a scaffold or scaling a wall, and deserve a better chance.