News Column

How to Freshen a Classic Play

September 15, 2013

YellowBrix

Director David Leveaux said the first thing he considers when approaching a play is, "How am I going to do this?"

In the case of "Romeo and Juliet," he came up with an idea that is at the very least provocative; he hopes not so much that it takes the focus away from Shakespeare.

The world's most famous play about doomed young love - in previews for a Thursday night opening at the Richard Rodgers Theater - is tougher to do than it seems, he said.

"It's a very difficult play to direct, an exciting challenge. It's part romantic comedy, part tragedy."

Like most people staging Shakespeare, Leveaux looked for a way to preserve its original poetry and dramatic power, while also making it fresh for a contemporary theater-goer.

The 55-year-old British director is very familiar with New York audiences, having done 11 previous revivals on Broadway, ranging from Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" to "Fiddler on the Roof."

"I wanted to update it, but not make it modern," he said at the theater last week, sitting at the back of the house before a matinee performance. "I want it to be a production in which the present holds hands with the past. Everything oscillates between now and then." He gave some examples: Characters wear hoodies, but they suggest medieval monks' garb. Romeo rides a motorcycle, but it's been reconstructed and decorated to resemble an ancient object. The scenic design evokes Juliet's Wall in Verona - the exterior of the house where legend and the city's tourist office say she lived - covered with its love-struck graffiti.

Leveaux's most notable addition, however, might be racial.

The project got going when movie actor Orlando Bloom (the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, among many others) came on board to play Romeo.

Next, obviously, was searching for an actress to play his leading lady.

"Juliets are hard to find," said Leveaux, adding that the character needed to be more than a moony, lovesick teenager.

"She must function equally in mind and heart," he said. "The audience is watching a young girl acquire maturity through the course of the evening."

Having seen Condola Rashad on Broadway, he said he was struck by the sense of humanity she conveyed, and, after speaking with her, was taken with her wit. She got the role.

Rashad has quickly become a theater critics' favorite, with compelling performances in "Ruined," "Stick Fly" and "The Trip to Bountiful."

That she's African-American (her mother is actress Phylicia Rashad and her father former pro football player and sports announcer Ahmad Rashad) would likely hardly cause a ripple.

A white Romeo and a darker-complexioned Juliet is simply another instance of the nontraditional casting that's become commonplace in the theater.

But ...

"I needed to give Condola a family," said Leveaux, "and I just followed my nose and decided they would be African-American. I'm not trying to impose a commentary on race on the play."

His decision, though, introduces a potentially powerful dramatic element because of the nature of the relationship between Romeo's and Juliet's families - her Capulets and his Montagues hate each other; they've been enemies since time immemorial.

Shakespeare never tells us why, so having one clan white and the other black inevitably - particularly for an American audience -- raises the question of whether race plays a role in the feud.

That's not something, said Leveaux, that he's aiming to place on the front burner, although he is aware of it.

"It's an ancient feud," he said, "and we live in a modern age. You need to have a certain conceit relevant to our experience in presenting it."

He acknowledged that some members of the audience might fixate on that aspect of the production. "It's unavoidable," he said. "We all respond according to what we bring into the theater."

That risk is trumped, though, he added, both by the logic of the casting, and the way it reinforces what he feels is an overlooked part of the play.

"It's known as a great love story," he said, "but Romeo and Juliet only meet four times. It's also an extraordinary tale of families." In his view, the difference in race of their families is one more hurdle Romeo and Juliet must surmount in their desire to be together.

Leveaux sees them as two young people whose love causes them to grow as individuals, and to make considered choices, rather than as emotionally immature youngsters swept away by passion.

"They live in a rigid society," he said, "and there are many aspects to overcome. They make a deep choice not to accept the world they came into."

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