The Bard Meets Bart

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:05

Classic stagings of classics and TV

Shakespeare's plays have lasted over 400 years--and it's not only because directors love to dress them up in vintage or contemporary clothing to show their current relevance. And if Shakespeare isn't the world's greatest playwright, he's pretty damn good by any standards--so good that most of his major characters have become archetypes of some human emotion--think jealousy and there's Othello, think young love and there's Romeo and Juliet.

This season, we're seeing a lot of those two young lovers both on and Off-Broadway (featuring Elizabeth Olsen, downtown at Classic Stage Company) and even on the big screen (freely adapted by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame). One can only hope that either or both of these will deliver a more satisfying experience than the current Broadway production, directed by six-time TONY nominee, David Leveaux (Nine/Cyrano de Bergerac) co-starring filmdom's Orlando Bloom (Lord of the Rings/Pirates of the Caribbean) in his Broadway debut opposite two time TONY nominee Condola Rashad (Stick Fly/A Trip to Bountiful).

Despite all theafore mentioned 'star' power, Romeo and Juliet at the Richard Rodgers Theatre is adrift in a rudderless production. Leveaux isn't sure if this is West Side Story with a racial rather than an ethnic divide - his star-crossed lovers are Black and white--although little is made of that divide in a Verona ruled by a majestic black Prince (Geoffrey Owens). Juliet's stout Caucasian nurse (Jane Houdyshell) has obviously been directed to go for the laughs (of which there are many, including a really great one involving a bicycle) at the expense of her emotional connection to Juliet. And within the Capulet family itself, the great Chuck Cooper's Lord C. seems to be channeling Sherman Helmsley in his most "Movin' On Up" persona, while Roslyn Ruff's Lady C. seems to have Michele Obama in mind.

Romeo's dashingly contempo entrance on a motorcycle (spewing lingering methane fumes over the first ten rows) and the fight scenes between the Montague and Capulet servants who use chains and switchblades in lieu of swords and daggers, also fall into the West Side Story paradigm, but the balcony scenes wherein the two lovers first declare and later (in Levaux's depiction) consummate their love, elicit laughter. All in all this Romeo and Juliet has the most inappropriate laughter in recent memory--who knew it was a comedy?

At 27, poor Condola Rashad, who's been terrific in every other play she's done, is at least a dozen years older than Juliet and seems quite lost here. With proper direction, she could have pulled off youth instead of simply trying so hard to play young - those wide eyes and that high pitched voice scream Valley girl, not young girl of Verona. It matters little what Bloom does (or doesn't do), a reasonably good Romeo, irrespective of age, he's got groupies in every audience who love every move he makes. It's a pity that Levaux spent so much time on stage effects--like the humongous hanging liberty bell (on which poor Bloom bumped his head one night) or those rivers of real onstage fire--instead offinding a concept that might have helped the whole production catch fire.

The only fire onstage at Playwright Horizons production of Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play, is in a huge empty metal drum surrounded by what might be a small group of friends at a backyard barbecue or perhaps a group of survivalists telling stories around a campfire--with guns. Slowly we come to realize that they are the scant few survivors of some apocalyptic disaster, trying to keep their spirits up by sharing a storytelling experience. As the curtain rises, they are retelling the "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons, based on the 1991 version of Martin Scorsese's re-imagining of the 1962 film classic.

While everyone over the age of 14 has usually heard the basic plot of R and J, there will be those in the 45-65 age range who won't know much if anything about The Simpsons. But it really won't matter because Washburn weaves the story and the memories

There is plenty offire and heat (if not actual light) in the post-electric world of Washburn's play, under the direction by Steven Cozzens, The Civilians' Artistic Director--Mr. Burns would have to rub his hands together and call it, "Excellent."