Classic Stage Company’s new production of Romeo and Juliet—ably directed by Tea Alagić—has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, some of its virtues are double-edged. It’s admirably uncluttered: The sparse decor—a wide, high, mostly empty space reminiscent of a high school gymnasium (albeit one with sleek modernist furniture on the sidelines)—leaves the emphasis squarely on the play’s words and characters. The performances are correspondingly plainspoken: The verse is strikingly clear, even conversational, for the most part.
The storytelling, which strips away most of the play’s public world to focus closely on the love plot, is crisp and lucid. Alagić doesn’t anticipate the play’s tragedy, allowing the narrative to flirt with hopeful resolution before it veers off to the inevitable grim results. And her staging of the teens’ first meeting at the Capulet ball—which I won’t spoil—is an unforcedly eloquent, refreshingly original treatment of one of the most cliché-prone passages in Shakespeare.
This is one of those rare productions where both protagonists come across as genuinely young. Alagić clothes her company in sleek contemporary streetwear —the opening brawl is a riot of tattoos, pointy shoes, and cornrows—without evoking awkward echoes of Baz, Leo, and Claire. Imaginative casting yields unexpected delights, like a motormouthed Latina Nurse (Daphne Rubin-Vega). Throughout, interpolated scraps of other languages suggest a simmering polyglot Verona by way of Brooklyn—Veronaburg, maybe. And you couldn’t ask for a better Friar Laurence than Daniel Davis’s gentle, tormented cleric.
To have managed all this is no mean feat; most productions of the play don’t get nearly so far. But each of these roses has its thorn: The much-distilled version of the script makes the volatile situation in Verona a backdrop, not a motivating context. Except for the fight scenes—essential to the plot—we lose the feverish society that provokes both the bloodshed and the passion. The blunt verse-speaking can’t always scale the play’s stratospheric poetic heights—performances frequently skim over the drama embedded in the language itself. Soliloquies remain stubbornly prosaic, and some gorgeous scenes flit by unsolved—the lovers’ morning-after scene (the last time we see them happy) gets exiled to a tabletop upstage, muted to uncertain purpose.
The main characters also get simplified: Here, Romeo (Julian Cihi) is a gentle guy’s guy who falls swiftly in love before being driven to violence by bad luck and bullying. This Juliet (Elizabeth Olsen) is the sweet, if slightly imperious, scion of a cold aristocratic family. But the duo’s complexities are smoothed away: we don’t really see their impulsiveness—the source of both snap romantic decisions and sudden harm. We also miss seeing their virtuosic imaginations at work—amplifying both their love-lifted flights and their tragic depths.
Despite these quibbles, Alagić is undoubtedly a promising director for the classics. CSC should be applauded for giving her a stage and cast for this ambitious production. I look forward to the next one.