Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Romeo and Juliet

This is the most deceptively simple Shakespeare work: it's perfect just as it is, and yet every director who tackles the play thinks that they have to do something cutting edge with it. Michael Greif can now add his name to that list; his new production for the New York Shakespeare Festival fails on nearly every level. It tries to be both ethereal and industrial--the set is a giant steel bridge atop a shallow lake--but ends up nothing but pretentious, and the revolving turntable stage by Mark Wendland is only a big, loud distraction. I can't imagine a more mismatched a miscast pair of star-crossed lovers than Oscar Isaac and Lauren Ambrose. The former is projects the attitude of a passive thumbsucker, while the latter plays the lovestruck heroine with a Lucia-like madness as early as the balcony scene. This attitude served her well as the play progressed--her Act One closing speech was terrific--but it didn't amount to much overall. Of the entire cast, only Camryn Manheim's Nurse was successful. Dressed in a skin-tight peasant frock and smoking cloves, she was as motherly as Mary and as womanly as Carmen, everything the character should be.


Sarah Ruhl is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with modern American playwrighting. Her chief offense, which is rather common today but which she takes to extremes, is valuing aesthetic pleasurability over genuine organic storytelling. It's almost remarkable that she could take one of the most fullproof love stories of all time--that of Eurydice, whose beloved husband travels to the deepest regions of Hell to recover her--and turn it into the equivalent of an art house chick flick, complete with moments of weepy melodrama and post-mortem familial reconcilation. But she seems to say that it doesn't matter, because there are so many pretty things to look at: running water...illuminated letters...a chorus of cranky stones! It doesn't help that Ruhl's writing style alternates between extremely heightened language and almost unintelligible gawkings, or that the underwhelming cast has no clue how to perform it. After The Clean House, which I also loathed, I was told by many that it was the Lincoln Center production that was at fault and not the playwright's text. After Eurydice, I know better. Ruhl may have hoodwinked the MacArthur Foundation and some of New York's best companies, but never again me.