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Failing Chemistry

Elizabeth Olsen and Julian Cihi in Romeo and Juliet at Classic Stage

I’m beginning to think that our failure at staging a compelling Romeo and Juliet means something. Over and over again, I attend productions crippled by a lack of chemistry between the leads. The most recent was the production currently running at Classic Stage downtown, which had such a long list of problems that I almost didn’t notice this most fundamental one, but honestly, I could ignore Mercutio (T. R. Knight) played as a speed freak, Romeo (Julian Cihi) wearing a Winnie-the-Pooh head for the sonnet scene, “sword fights” staged as fist-fights with packets of stage blood in the combatants’ fists, clichéd eruptions in Spanish and inexplicable eruptions into Serbo-Croatian (I think), Lady Capulet (Kathryn Meisle) conducting an illicit affair with a Tybalt (Dion Mucciacito) dressed as a circus lion tamer, and don’t know what else – I could ignore it all if only the love story played, even a little.

But it didn’t. Some people are blaming the leads, but I thought Elizabeth Olsen (who plays Juliet) was very powerful in “Martha Marcy May Marlene;” I don’t see any reason why should couldn’t have been a powerful Juliet. And besides, it’s not just this production. It’s a pattern.

Lack of chemistry between the principals was the biggest problem with this past summer’s Stratford production, directed by Tim Carroll, which was stylistically the opposite of Tea Alagic’s throw-the-kitchen-sink-on-the-gym-floor concept. And it’s apparently the problem with the Orlando Bloom/Condola Rashad version, directed by David Leveaux (which I haven’t yet seen). And with the new movie version, directed by Carlo Carlei in the sumptuous Merchant/Ivory-style version of “period.” And with the last Stratford production of the play, directed by Des McAnuff, which cleverly married period and modernity to try to have its cake and eat it, too. Even in the put-the-play-in-a-blender production that Sean Graney mounted in Chicago, there was more chemistry between Romeo and Mercutio than between the two titular lovers.

Has it really been discontented winter ever since the definitive R&J of the summer of love?

I don’t want to think so, but something is going on. There’s been a noticeable decline even since the days of Leo and Claire. I’m not such a bardolator that I’m above deciding that it’s just not that great a play, but it has been a cultural a touchstone for centuries, and it has been for a reason. I’ve argued before that social change didn’t kill the romantic comedy – and I stand by that argument. But, as I intimated in that piece, something does indeed seem to be killing Romeo and Juliet.

I wish I knew what.

Romeo and Juliet plays at Classic Stage Company through November 10th.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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