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Review: ROMEO AND JULIET: It's Not Shakespeare, It's HBO

They say that if the great playwrights of the past were alive today, many of them would be writing for television. Classic Stage Company's new mounting of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Tea Alagic, makes a good argument that William Shakespeare's tragedy of teenage lust could have been submitted as a continuing arc for HBO's hit series, Girls. Although he may have had to submit it as W. Shakespeare in order to trick Lena Dunham into thinking he was a female twentysomething.

And the best argument that it could succeed very nicely is Elizabeth Olsen's neurotically charged Juliet. Dressed by designer Clint Ramos in a contemporary pretty white dress and black combat boots, she could pass for an NYU liberal arts grad stressing out over boyfriend problems. After all, Julian Cihi's somber, unemotional Romeo, though not without an attractively dark and sensitive quality, is certainly not the type that would be open about his feelings in a relationship.

Olsen's angst is funny and rhythmic and her gabby way with the language seems a natural fit. There's nothing that resembles chemistry between the two, but perhaps the point here is that R&J are both too self-involved for anything more than a quick sexual fling, which is rather fortunate considering the way things turn out.

Another surprisingly different performance that works like a charm is Daphne Rubin-Vega's Newyorican nurse, a thickly accented, occasionally Spanish-spewing diva reminiscent of Rita Moreno's Googie Gomez in The Ritz, but looking far more chic in her black slacks and crisp blouse. (The tight, sparkly mini-dress she wears to the Capulets' ball might have you picturing the nurse sexually grinding to "Ou-oooooooote Tonight" on her way to the dance.) She gets her laughs, for sure, but the character is grounded enough so that when her anger bubbles up it's soberingly forceful.

The ever-plummy Daniel Davis offers the most traditionally verbalized Elizabethan tones as an elegant Friar Laurence and David Garrison's Lord Capulet is nicely snide and cold.

But while there are several attractive elements, Alagic's production never coalesces as a whole dramatic piece. The play gets lost in a clump of mismatched attempts to do something different and the evening seems less concerned with Shakespeare's story than it is with showing off how non-traditional the antics can get. Much of it is entertaining, but little is engaging.

Designer Marsha Ginsberg's minimalist set looks a bit like a school gym with its light-colored polished wood floor. The lightweight table and row of chairs set upstage wouldn't look out of place in a college classroom, but the table is for having sex and the chairs are more for throwing than for sitting.

Shakespeare's prologue is replaced with a prelude where each character slowly enters individually to "dramatic" pounds, like the soundtrack of a boxing movie, each standing silently in line throwing tense glares outward. The point was clearly made by the time the fifth of the thirteen member cast was set into place.

The fight scenes are minimalistic, too. The warring families don't carry weapons, but instead do battle by splashing stage blood on each other. T.R. Knight's Mercutio is like one of those crazy angry hipsters who still can't get over the fact that Mars Bar went condo and the muscular Dion Mucciacito, as Tybalt, is frequently shirtless and dressed like an Edwardian circus strong man.

And don't get me started on the scene where Romeo dances with Juliet while wearing a giant Winnie The Pooh head.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Daphne Rubin-Vega and Elizabeth Olsen; Bottom: T.R. Knight and Julian Cihi.

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