Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Romeo & Juliet” is a perfectly acceptable production, with the usual beautiful sets and exquisite costumes one expects from them. But it’s a workhorse production, with nothing new to say or add to the performance history. That in itself isn’t really a problem – traditional mountings of plays allow one to reconnect on a basic level with text and character, and this would be a good introductory piece for say, a high school audience to view. But I expect more from STC.
I expected even more than usual, given the press materials’ quoting of director David Muse’s hope that an all-male cast would give a “fresh and dangerous and transgressive” approach to the production. But in this era, just doing an all-male cast is not going to give you transgressive. It isn’t even innovative anymore – companies such as the Globe and Propeller have been doing it for the last decade - a fact pointed out without irony by STC’s own materials (I kept waiting for the punchline in that article – “and now, DC finally catches on to the trend!”). There has to be something more to set it apart. So why do an all-male cast and leave almost everything else derivative and traditional? Oddly, this was the least testosterone-fueled production I’ve ever seen, the opening brawls lacking any sense of the explosive danger of the feud between Capulets and Montagues.
Matters aren’t helped by a Romeo and Juliet with absolutely no chemistry together. James Davies is an intensely likeable actor whom I’d love to see in other roles, but his tall Juliet towers over her Romeo and sports a disconcertingly mature voice. It wasn’t so much the case of the wrong man playing the part, as the wrong woman. And Finn Wittrock’s Romeo never quite finds the dangerous tempo of an adolescent in love. In fact both leads had issues with pace that was endemic to the production as a whole. They never gained the frenzied pace necessary to portray the fury of adolescent desire, the kind that blinds one to rational solutions. Gutted of this last element, one finds it especially hard to care about whether or not the two lovers end up together, regardless of the gender of the actors. That’s a directorial choice perhaps, but I’m not sure what’s being offered in its place.
A shame as several standouts – Dan Kremer and Tom Beckett as Lord and Lady Capulet, Drew Eshelman as the Nurse, and the ever dependable Ted van Griethuysen as Friar Lawrence – gave rich performances with beautiful vocal control and moments keenly delivered. Dan Kremer in particular brings the only moment of true tension when his jovial Lord Capulet finally loses control and shows the danger in crossing the family patriarch. But if the young lovers aren’t believeable, there’s a hole at the heart of the play that moments like this can’t adequately patch.
I’m hard on STC because I really want them to be good. I want them to live up to the reputation of being the pre-eminent American Shakespeare company. I want them to be innovative and groundbreaking and leave the audience gasping at what they’ve seen. Audiences this literate deserve it. I’m tired of artists still thinking DC audiences don’t get it, years after the rest of the global theatrical community have explored these avenues. This is a well-traveled crowd – I heard several people at intermission intelligently reference all-male productions from decades ago. They don’t need it spoonfed to them. Artists of this caliber should stop being safe, and demand more of themselves.
(Stay tuned for next week’s review of Taffety Punk’s all-female production of “Romeo & Juliet”…)