Here are just a few of the inspirations spotted in Fabio Toblini’s costuming for the Shakespeare Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet: Vermeer, J. Crew, Cruella DeVil, hotel bellhops, Shriner fezzes, the Russian army, the Swiss Guard, The Wild Wild West, and spaghetti westerns. Also: Prada knockoff purses that you may soon find sold at a Metro stop near you, and a little Elizabethan lace, shyly peaking out of a jacket cuff as if embarrassed by its mere historical accuracy.
Seldom has more been less. Instead of synergy, Toblini’s grab bag achieves the same effect you get by mixing Easter egg colors together—a dull brown. Which also aptly describes this production, a by-the-numbers crank-out of the greatest love story ever told. Brisk only in pacing, it has the fizz of day-old soda.
A Romeo and Juliet sans affect counts as a real accomplishment, because just perusing the script in an easy chair can heat you up. And bother you, too, with its vicious street feud between the Capulets and the Montagues, neighbor-on-neighbor warfare that seems ripped from the AP wire. The play’s romantic passion springs out of ground soaked with blood; its sex and stabbing mirror each other.
Director Rachel Kavanaugh gets the hate right, at least in terms of equipment. Her gentlemen of Verona wear swords big enough to hinder walking. And though the two families have money, they’re street thugs who brawl at the drop of a handkerchief. Capulet (Edward Gero) even slaps around his own nephew, Tybalt (Andrew Long), at a party, looking like a capo dressing down a lieutenant. (Gero is one of the production’s few highlights. Funny, fretful, and fuck-the-niceties, his Capulet is Tony Soprano as played by Dabney Coleman.)
Their body count is accelerating weekly, so the Capulets pressure their pubescent daughter Juliet (Jennifer Ikeda) to marry the nobleman Paris (Keith Powell) and get to work making babies. Except that Juliet, of course, has just fallen hard for the Montague scion Romeo (Paul Whitthorne). Their relationship won’t go anywhere—but it’s supposed to go nowhere spectacularly. If the two young lovers aren’t pure electricity from cute meeting to suicidal end, an audience starts to dwell on the plot’s holes. Kavanaugh & Co., though, can’t find the wall outlet.
The difficulties start with Whitthorne’s Romeo, whose line “I have lost myself—I am no longer here” has probably never been as telling. Whitthorne compounds his small stage presence with a delivery that falls to the stage right out of his mouth. It’s not a volume problem: We can hear him, and he’s inflecting, but half his words make no impression whatsoever. We lose Romeo’s puns and wordplay, and with them the romantic comedy that should leaven the first 30 minutes of the play.
Whitthorne misplays the teenage-but-growing Romeo as a boy. He moves with a juvenile bounce, as if he’s about to kick up his heels or spin into a double axel. And his ultimate reaction to being banished from the city is to bury his head in the skirts of the Nurse (Claudia Robinson)—which caused the audience to laugh knowingly the night I attended. Whitthorne’s voice simply doesn’t have enough steel or anguish for the part. This Romeo needs some Hamlet.
Whitthorne’s lack of stature extends to his posse, particularly Harry Carnahan’s layabout Mercutio. Even though Shakespeare kills him off before intermission, Mercutio is such a juicy role that, during one London production, Laurence Olivier once famously switched into it from playing Romeo. Carnahan’s Mercutio, though, seems like a refugee from Dazed and Confused, slumped on his ass against a pillar for most of his scenes. He lacks the essential Brad Pitt swashbuckling that would seduce us. Still, it’s hard to fully judge his performance, because Carnahan doesn’t let us in on it—like Whitthorne, he lets his language die in transit. Mercutio here is a muttering mystery, and his death comes as relief instead of shock.
Besides Capulet and Joseph Marcell’s magisterial Friar Laurence (who looks resigned to being the adult here), the best of the rest is Ikeda’s Juliet, who proves the maxim that girls mature faster than boys. Ikeda perfectly captures Juliet’s budding sexuality—when she says “I am too fond” toward Romeo in the famous balcony scene, she’s shaking her head at how big her heart has suddenly become. Ikeda leans into the character’s desire, her voice effervescent with delight, not to mention gushing hormones. When the second act opens with Juliet on a white-hot bed (lit gorgeously by Howell Binkley), she’s as ready for her man as ready gets.
But then Ikeda stumbles through Juliet’s learning of Tybalt’s death at the hand of Romeo, and we’re once again aware of what pedestrian guidance and atmospherics Kavanaugh has provided her cast. Reputations can be as double-edged as swords, and Kavanaugh has one as a hot young British director who respects the text but wants to make it emotionally accessible. Such hype just sharpens the disappointment in her very square mounting of this Romeo and Juliet. Her blocking is resolutely uninteresting—conveying almost no physical subtext. Neither Peter McKintosh’s set, nothing more than two second-floor landings supported by beams, nor Adam Wernick’s dull Renaissance-style music adds much. Only Binkley’s lighting excels, especially in the balcony scene, for which he invents a moonshine that’s both radiant and ominous.
As for the actors, Kavanaugh seems to have left them largely alone. How else to explain the slackness of their emotions, the ephemerality of their grieving? Or how Robinson gets away with playing the Nurse as a Caribbean caricature of Aunt Jemima? And in the highlight scene of the Capulet masked ball, in which choreographer Karma Camp has mapped out sexy waltzes and Toblini’s sumptuous satins are for once spot-on, Kavanaugh inspires zero energy into Whitthorne’s and Ikeda’s mutual seduction.
Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is a famous Shakespearian dilemma, and it certainly now applies to straightforward renderings of Romeo and Juliet. Films by Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet) and Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love) have turned the play inside out—structurally, economically, psychically—for at least the moment. Can an uninflected production still speak to us? We’ll need a better one than this to find out. CP