Condola Rashad and Orlando Bloom shine in biracial ‘Romeo and Juliet’

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David Leveaux’s Romeo and Juliet, staged at the Richard Rogers Theater, opens with a bang.

Literally, the play opens with the loud clang of a church bell, onto a graffitied renaissance fresco of saints that serves as the backdrop for a gang fight. The production that follows, however, strikes a softer note, easing you into the velvet coils of Shakespeare’s doomed romance with an irrepressible lightness of being.

The chaotic opening scene of the dueling Montagues and Capulets, swaggering in contemporary apparel against the ruins of Verona immediately puts you in mind of the clashing aesthetics of Baz Luhrmann’s highly stylized 1996 production of the iconic love story, but the comparisons more or less end there.

After the fray disbands, Orlando Bloom’s Romeo motors on stage, stirring every teen’s rebel-without-a-cause fantasy, atop a black motorcycle. After bemoaning his current heart’s desire, Rosaline (remember her? Yeah, nobody does), his buddy Benvolio induces him to attend a party at the rich Capulet’s house where he can meet some other fine lady to take his mind off of Rosaline.

There he beholds Juliet and, well, the rest is well recorded dramatic history. The two fall in love instantaneously. But all is not well in fair Verona: Romeo is a son of the Montague household and Juliet is of the rival Capulet clan, and never the twain shall meet.

Nonetheless, the two immemorial lovers contrive a hasty marriage with the aid of Juliet’s indefatigable nurse, played to the hilt by Jane Houdyshell (who manages to conjure both the meddlesome Aunt from James’ Washington Square and your sassy best friend) and Verona’s friar.

But their plan to defy the social mores that divide them are yet again foiled when, after yet another scuffle Romeo’s bestie, Mercutio, is murdered, and in an act of revenge Romeo slays Tybalt, a son of the Capulets and Juliet’s beloved cousin. From there all hell breaks loose, and Romeo and Juliet are led to fulfill the obligation of an ill-conceived suicide pact. Heavy stuff, right?

Well, yes, but in Leveaux’s gentle hands the first act of the play is as wistful and poetic as the white feather that at one point drifts from Juliet’s (death) bed. The muted, mauve red and plum hues paired with David Weiner’s soft, ethereal lighting transport the viewer into a world of perpetual afterglow. The festive balloons that decorate the stage during the Capulet’s masquerade ball give the effect of flashing lightening bugs at twilight, offering a soft mantel for R and J’s star-crossed love affair.  Nancy Bannon’s seamless choreography achieves the same harmony.

Rashad’s Juliet, dressed always in white, takes wing in this atmosphere. All pink and blush, she enters each scene with an exuberance that celebrates Juliet’s budding youth. She is, after all, only thirteen when the story takes place. Her frank, conversational delivery gives the audience full access to every word, intonation and mischievous wink, even if, in the second half of the play when things take a more dramatic turn, she seems to struggle a bit to give her emotions the depth that they deserve.

All the same, Juliet is as witty as ever, but equally as earnest, lending this love affair every ounce of its sincerity.  In terms of the interracial casting, Rashad’s effervescent Juliet completely transcends race politics, as does the genuinely un-contrived diversity of the rest of the cast.

Rashad is in good company here. Chuck Cooper’s Lord Capulet is bombastic and absolutely believable as Juliet’s overbearing and perhaps a bit depraved father. Christian Camargo’s interpretation of Mercutio as a past-his-prime, charmingly disaffected, aging British rocker type also deserves a notable mention. And, of course, Houdyshell’s Nurse brings a witty contemporary significance to the dialogue, when for instance she calls out to Juliet “go, girl, seek happy nights to happy days,” ensuring these lines resonate with her post-women’s movement, 21st-century audience.

Bloom’s Romeo is a bit trickier. While Bloom is certainly not the first actor to be significantly older than the Lothario he is portraying, at 35, his handsome, slightly wearied expression offers another layer to the beleaguered and not all together trustworthy Romeo.

Let us not forget that when the play starts Romeo is still stuck on Rosaline, who he laments “Hath Diane’s wit; and, in strong proof of chastity well arm’d, from love’s weak childish bow she lives unharm’d.” The suggestion here, played up by the spritely Conrad Kemp as Benvolio with a series of phallic gestures, is that, at least on some level, Romeo’s inflated poetics are the effect of his lust for Rosaline (you make the distinction between love and lust).

Romeo’s questionable motivations are underscored again when, only moments later, in an abrupt about-face, after spying Juliet at the masquerade he exclaims, “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight! For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.” Somehow Bloom’s maturity renders Romeo’s inconstancy more dubious, and surfaces one of the less explored themes of this tale: the often unreliable and as it were, dangerous, rhetoric of love.

Between Rashad and Bloom, who both do some stand up acting (if they aren’t always in sync), you see the hyperbolic pledges of love mount between them like dares or dead bodies, intensifying their feelings and lifting them perilously into the clouds until they have no choice but to cling desperately to their proclamations; you see, it’s all they have. The French call it folie a deux. I call it two people whipping themselves into frenzy.

Of course we know this isn’t going to end well, but Jesse Poleschuck’s set design subtly drives the point home. For instance, from the start of the play a long coiled rope used to ring the church bell hangs from its clapper, forming a shadow in numerous scenes that resembles a noose, casting the pall of death over the players. In another well-staged scene, Juliet’s bed is lifted above Romeo’s head after she takes the concoction the friar gives her that’s intended to induce an artificial sleep (but which leads, ultimately to her eternal slumber), suggesting, in a beautifully constructed metaphor, that her death is literally and figuratively on Romeo’s head.

All and all this is a well-tempered production of Romeo and Juliet, achieving a difficult balance between the flash of Broadway and the intimacy we want to see in any love story. You might very well fall in love with this production, but as Friar says to Romeo, I’d say you’d be better advised to “love moderately.”

Chase Quinn is a New York based freelance culture writer. For more on arts and culture, follow Chase on Twitter at @chasebquinn.