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Oct 21 2013

Stage Door: Romeo and Juliet x 3

In theStage Doorseries we look at current theatrical productions with our cinematic eye.Here'sJoseon Romeo & Juliet

Some time within the last 14 days,I subjected myself tothreeversions of William Shakespeare'sRomeo and Julietplaying in NYC."Subjected?"you ask,well dear reader,each of them was perhaps more horrifying than the previous,leading me to ask if I wasn't an unwitting participant in some Shakespeare-meets-Halloween project.However in the name of scientific research I've come back with some results.

The versions in question are...

1) a Broadway update (the first in over four decades) starring Condola Rashad and Orlando Bloom as the infamous lovers from Verona.
2) a new film (written by Julian Fellowes) starring Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld as Juliet and Damian Lewis as her dad
3) an off-Broadway version with Elizabeth Olsen and newcomer Julian Cihi as the title characters.

Both theater versions feature anachronisms and are set in unspecified times,the film version inversely has a time-appropriate setting yet somehow it doesn't feel like the most old fashioned of them.

The Best and Worst of each pairafter the jump...

The three productions are equally uneven with all of them sharing one particular tragedy in common: there is absolutely no chemistry between the lovers.Can it be that the love between Romeo and Juliet is no longer relevant?In the age of internet insta-dating,high divorce rates,unwanted/unplanned teen pregnancy et al.has their love story become too sincere,or perhaps too unbelievable to be presented without irony,unnecessary aesthetic flourishes or extreme,almost prudish,reverence?

The work itself has never been the Bard's best,despite moments of brilliance and endless quotability.Romeo & Juliet's tragic nature doesn't hold a candle toMacbeth,King LearorHamletfor that matter and its romance seems hammy when compared to the airy swooniness ofA Midsummer's Night DreamorMuch Ado About Nothing.Still,that doesn't help explain why three completely different new versions all happened to be mediocre.Originally I planned to rate them in order of how many times Shakespeare would roll in his grave for each of them,but even I can't be that snarky,so without further ado,I've come up with my own best/worst ofs.

Best Romeo

Believe you me,this wasn't an easy choice to make,basically because all the Romeos are terrible.I've decided to be lenient and give the slight edge to Douglas Booth from the film version.Booth looks the part and is the only one who could conceivably drive teenagers into R.Patz-like obsession.That he is introduced shirtless and sculpting Rosaline helped a lot too.

Worst Romeo

Orlando Bloom's Romeo inspires more snickers than swoons.Not only is he too old for the part,he also seems to have been given the absolute worst directions in his entire production (When in doubt remove your shirt!Act like Spider-Man during the balcony scene!Mumble through your lines!Steal Juliet's thunder with your biceps!)

Best Juliet

Few people can do what Condola Rashad does onstage.Period.Earlier this year she broke a million hearts with her small part inThe Trip to Bountifulopposite Cicely Tyson in which she delivered one of the most touching performances I've ever seen and her Juliet is the only character in her production who seems to be doing the right thing.From the moment she appears onstage,you can't take your eyes off of her.She's vibrant,her Juliet's life full of promise,and such a generous actress that she even tries to fool us into believing Bloom's Romeo makes any kind of sense.May she continue bringing her magic to the stage for decades to come!

Worst Juliet

It pains my heart to say that Elizabeth Olsen's Juliet had me wishing she'd get to that dagger within her first two scenes.It might not be her fault entirely,because the director seems to have a pretty twisted vision of why these two teenagers fall in love,but her Juliet is shrill,prone to way too much hysteria and just plain obnoxious.She's what one would imagine the Olsen twins would be when being wooed.She never seems to be interested in Romeo's love,but only in why can't she have what she wants

If there is one thing these versions managed to prove though,was that maybe we have been reading this play the wrong way and Romeo and Juliet aren't the principal characters.I was surprised to find that in all of them,it was the supporting players who displayed new layers I'd never observed in other versions...

Best Mercutio:T.R.Knight's faithful sidekick in the Off-Broadway version was a combination of Daniel Day Lewis inGangs of New York,Billy Zane inTitanicand Heath Ledger's The Joker.Take that as you will!But the truth is that his performance was always interesting to watch,even as it veered into parody.Not so curiously his death scene was the only time Cihi made an emotional impact as Romeo,his wail upon realizing his friend had died was absolutely chilling.Worst Mercutio:Christian Camargo (Broadway)

Best Friar:Watching the Off-Broadway version I kept thinking how kind,warm and generous the Friar looked and all I wanted was to be his friend.There was also something very familiar about his voice...and then it struck me!It's Daniel Davis - Niles fromThe Nanny!That alone immediately won him this vote.Worst Friar:Paul Giamatti (Film Version)

Best Nurse:Even if Daphne Rubin Vega was essentially doing Sofia Vergara-redux in the Off-Broadway version,her Nurse was not only interesting because of the sociopolitical implications of her Spanglish delivery,but because she finally made us realize just how important this character is to Juliet.She is truly her mother,the woman who has spent every single minute of her life looking after her.Discovering Juliet faux-dead on her wedding day was the most heartbreaking moment in any of the three productions.Worst Nurse:Lesley Manville (Film Version)

Worst Tybalt:In the film version Ed Westwick plays Tybalt as Chuck Bass-doing-Shakespeare because he lost a wager.There is not a single moment in his performance that doesn't scream Gossip Girl,from the walk,to the conspiratory eyes,to the hiss...it made me wish Leighton Meester would show up and save the day in an Audrey Hepburn costume!Best Tybalt:Don Mucciacito (Off-Broadway)

So there you have it dear readers,a plague on all their houses!However on the upside,after watching the very last version,I ran home to watchShakespeare in Loveand cleanse my palate.Say what you will about that film,the chemistry between Gwynnie and Joe Fiennes is astonishing.

What's your favorite Romeo & Juliet?What's your capacity for Shakespeare adaptations like these days: keep 'em coming,a moratorium,or somewhere in the middle?

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Reader Comments (13)

There's no excuse for a bad Mercutio.If you mess that up,you're way off track.

I am generally pretty into Shakespeare adaptations,I just wish we'd be more adventurous with the ones we are adapting.We do NOT need more versions of Romeo and Juliet or MacBeth or Hamlet or (maybe) Othello.Julie Taymor's Titus is a great example of what we should be doing: taking lesser known or just plain less Shakespeare plays and shaking them up.(I guess she tried this with The Temptest too but .........)

I'm looking forward to the Ethan Hawke Cymbeline.Other stuff,like ANOTHER MacBeth with Michael Fassbender,eh.

October 21,2013 | Unregistered Commenterwill h

I thought that was Shohreh Agdashloo with Elizabeth Olsen for a second...not sure if that's good or bad...

October 21,2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoey

all of these sound like a mess.(I would be most pissed about the broadway production,as I suppose that was the most expensive one to see)

and to think condola rashad played ellis' 'girlfriend' on "smash".that show (and their use of its actors)!

October 21,2013 | Unregistered Commentermarcelo

What are your thoughts on Shakespeare in Love as a whole?One of my favourite films ever,and yes,the chemistry is off the charts!

October 21,2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

I love Romeo and Juliet.Every line is pure beauty.I agree with Will h.If you suck as Mercutio you probably need to change of profession.

Answering your question,I'll say I rather get my dose of Shakespeare on stage,preferably without being modernized.

October 21,2013 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

My favorite Romeo & Juliet would be West Side Story,even with the inadequate Richard Beymer as Tony,at least he was pretty.But the rethinking and location change made the story vibrant.The best straight version was Zeffirelli's and Luhrmann souped up version at least added some new things with DiCaprio and Claire Danes having real chemistry.But how many times can you go to the well and add nothing new?Too many unfortunately.

I'm somewhere in the middle on adaptations,bring on the obscure works or some worthwhile re-imagining of one of the old warhorses.

Has Hollywood ever done a version of King John,Timon of Athens or Troilus and Cressida,I know at least the last is considered one of his problem plays but at least it would be fresh.

As far as the ones that are often revived then it depends on the cast and concept,I loved Kenneth Branagh's transplanted Hamlet,all bright and shiny with great work in almost every role,and a lot of the 1990 version but Gibson's central performance left me cold,getting me in the way of fine work by the rest of the cast.

October 21,2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Here's the thing about Romeo & Juliet: When it's cast to character,it doesn't work.The few times I've seen it with actual teenagers in the role,I just kept thinking how freaking stupid they were about everything,and how they just needed to grow up.It's only when the characters are played by actors who are a bit older (Rashad is probably at the exact right age) that the play really works.So my expectations for this new film version were very low.I didn't even know about the Off Broadway production,although that cast is easily the more intriguing of the two stage versions (Davis is PERFECT for the Friar) - Rashad and Camargo (one of NY's best classical actors,if more than a bit too old for the part) aside.I've heard mixed things about the Broadway production,so I decided to save my money for Mark Rylance's repertory productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III instead.

October 21,2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

My favorite R&J is the Zeffirelli version.So beautiful and true.i love the story and like it without frills.That said,I really liked the Luhrmann version.

Loved Branagh's Hamlet.Even managed to get past how bad Jack Lemon was.

I agree about more Shakespeare like Titus.Such imagination.

I enjoyed Shakespeare in Love.But that year I preferred Elizabeth.

October 21,2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Here's the thing about Romeo & Juliet: When it's cast to character,it doesn't work.The few times I've seen it with actual teenagers in the role,I just kept thinking how freaking stupid they were about everything,and how they just needed to grow up.

But isn't that kind of the point of the story?It's a tragedy because the whole thing could have been prevented if they hadn't been so young and reckless and caught up in their twu wuv.

October 21,2013 | Unregistered CommenterClaire

Oh gawd,Westwick's "a plague on both your houses"is such weak sauce.Compare to Harold Perineau from Luhrmann's version and...well,it's bad to compare anything in the new film to Baz's version.It came as no surprise to learn this new film version was financed by Swarovski of diamonds and crystal fame.

October 22,2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Bollywood is gearing up for its own Romeo+Juliet take set in violent times called Ram-Leela.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ram-Leela

The sets are incredibly gorgeous.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vELnVBQUN4s for example.

October 22,2013 | Unregistered CommenterKD

The Zeffirelli version is one of my favorite movies,in any category.For me it really shows what an adaptation can be with the right miracle mix of parts.Olivia & Leonard were completely believable to me.

It reminds me of the Bergman version of The Magic Flute - faithful and perfect without trying too hard.

October 22,2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

this is my post http://www.fiocchifiocchi.com/home/william-shakespeare/

December 24,2013 | Unregistered Commenterfiocchifiocchi.com

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