If you like watching Gossip Girl on The CW and you've never seen an actual performance of Romeo and Juliet before, then maybe, just maybe, the current Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of the William Shakespeare's most popular play is for you. Lots of handsome, testosterone-fueled young men run shirtless around the fake-stone stage; Juliet (Caitlin FitzGerald) is suitably self absorbed, rich, and beautiful; and Romeo (Charles Pasternak) is a lover who brings it, at one point dangling from the industrial metal catwalk that links the second floors of the set's two main structures before executing a chin up to give his beloved a kiss. Ooh. Ahh.
The play begins promisingly enough. Romeo, the only son of Lord and Lady Montague, is alone in his tree fort, gazing bleakly into the darkness. Juliet, the only daughter of Lord and Lady Capulet, is standing at her iconic balcony window in a whisper of a dress, her body the embodiment of a sigh. Each is searching the blank night for something to fill the voids in their lives, yet each is unaware of the other, let alone their shared longing.
Then, before we have a chance to consider what we know lies ahead for the world's most famous star-crossed lovers, a tangle of gypsy clichés commandeer the stage. Pretty much without exception, the men are all brutes who appear to shop at Urban Outfitters and are only lacking matching distressed My Chemical Romance t-shirts from Hot Topic to complete their ridiculous costumes. The women are girl-can't-help-it teases who bang tambourines but aren't afraid to use a knife when the advances of their male counterparts turn brutal. High spirits and the promise of sex quickly descends into lust and violence. Within seconds the rabble are at each other's throats, armed with swords, switchblades, and Dustbusters. By the time Prince Escalus (Gene Gillette) strides into this hormonal mosh pit to reign in the riot between the shirts and the skins (most of the Montague men wear only open vests above their belts), the only thing that rings true is the prince's characterization of his subjects as beasts.
Civility momentarily restored, it's time to meet our heroes. We are introduced to Romeo by his cousin Benvolio (Erik Hellman), who seeks out the sulking lad on behalf of his worried uncle and aunt. Benvolio learns that unrequited love is the cause of Romeo's Emo 'tude, although the words that Shakespeare has put into the mouths of this randy pair suggest that for Romeo, it may have been more of a case of blue balls than a broken heart. I liked this scene a lot, with Romeo and Benvolio getting comfortable in their characters as they lounge carelessly on the skirts of the uncomfortable stage. The scene blossoms even more with the arrival of a Capulet servant named Peter (Mick Mize), who is like a live-action version of the hapless Linguini character in Ratatouille. In the first act, anyway, when Mize is given free reign to play his character like the clown that he is, he steals just about every scene.
Over at the house of Capulet, we learn about the barely 14, Converse-clad Juliet through the eyes of her nurse (Saundra McClain), even though her alcoholic, stiletto-heeled, Bride-of-Frankenstein-hairdo mother (Yvonne Woods) shares the stage. As Juliet's nurse recalls the day her precious charge was born, she and Lady Capulet shave the slouching girl's legs and underarms in a funny and charming scene that made me think of a pampered Kirsten Dunst in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. Would that FitzGerald had been given the latitude by director Kim Rubinstein to sustain this childlike version of Juliet throughout the play. It was more engaging, and felt more true to Shakespeare's character, than the Gwyneth Paltrow turn that dominates the second act.
The two doomed love birds meet at a party at Juliet's house, where she sings a Karaoke version of "Dream a Little Dream of Me," with various Capulet women on backup vocals. During her performance, Juliet dances with a pair of would-be suitors, including the tragic Paris (Jon Gentry). Both men dance like complete numbskulls, a mean trick on the director's part to help ensure that we have no sympathy for them vis-a-vis Juliet's eventual affection for her Romeo. Paris always struck me as a guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time rather than a villain, so the director's decision to manipulate the audience's impression of the man through the use of cheap theatrics seems, well, cheap. I have no problem with putting small household appliances in the hands of random actors, or giving us a window on a character by having her conjure Mama Cass, but the systematic dehumanization of Paris is one of this production's numerous sins.
Indeed, the most serious problems with Rubinstein's Romeo and Juliet are not her stylistic choices -- costumes that range from ancient Budapest to contemporary Alphabet City, for example -- but the substantive changes she has made to Shakespeare's play. While Paris is being dehumanized, Romeo is being transformed into a character for whom we have faint sympathy. For almost three hours, Pasternak's Romeo wails and whines his lines at the same bellowing pitch. At times he literally stumbles about the stage, so drunk with grief that he can barely keep himself erect as he bawls his lines to the heavens. Good grief this guy is tiresome.
But Romeo is no mere victim of blood (he's a Montague) and circumstance (in love with a Capulet). When he eventually kills Juliet's cousin Tybalt (David Arrow) he does so by stabbing the man in the chest not once, as in the original, but twice. Not content with this 100% increase in Romeo's violence toward Tybalt, Rubinstein directs him to knife Juliet's cousin again, this time in the back, after which he slits his adversary's throat. Granted, the fight scene between Romeo and Tybalt is one of the better physical sequences of the play, but the Romeo that the audience sees appears too practiced at, and too familiar with, the killing of men. What, we wonder, could Juliet possibly see in this violent cad?
Would that there were more moments like the scene in which the nurse reports Romeo's murder of Tybalt to Juliet on one side of the stage ("I saw the wound," she tells Juliet, to which my son leaned over to me and muttered "Which one?") while Friar Laurence (Richard Farrell) informs Romeo of his banishment from Verona for the crime. Or the moment early in the second act, when the gypsies are joined by a very gifted Erik Hellman, who reveals to us that Benvolio is not only a good friend to Romeo and, apparently, the only young male Montague who knows how to button a shirt, but he is also an accomplished guitarist. By the end of this spoiled play, which I won't spoil for you any more than I already have, Rubinstein flirts with Baz Luhrmann's interpretation of Romeo and Juliet's final moments on Earth, except unlike Luhrmann, she doesn't deliver anything resembling a payoff to the audience.
Romeo and Juliet runs through August 21, 2008, at the Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen at UC Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12 to $44. For tickets and information visit santacruztickets.com or call 831-459-2159.