I am fortune’s fool. I had looked forward to two stagings of “Romeo and Juliet” this season — one on Broadway with Orlando Bloom and another at one of my favorite companies, Classic Stage. A plague on both their houses.
Shakespeare’s play, with its implausible plot of mid-teens who marry within a day of meeting, a magic potion that lets Juliet only seem to die, and a double suicide the next day, can be hard to pull off in our time. But it has flourished in incarnations as varied as the Bernstein-Sondheim riff “West Side Story” and the sexy Zefferelli movie in 1968 to Joe Calarco’s revelatory “Shakespeare’s R&J” version of prep school boys reading the forbidden text to each other and the smart and fun movie “Shakespeare in Love.” It can have special resonance for gay audiences with its themes of love denied.
At Classic Stage, director Tea Alagic — haunted by the bloodshed in her native Bosnia — tries to bring out the intensity of the violence that does indeed permeate the play, but succeeds in making a mess of it on a spare playing area that looks like a basketball court.
Ill-cast or maybe just misdirected are the star-crossed lovers. Elizabeth Olsen, an accomplished indie film actress with a deep voice that sounds like she could bloom into Kathleen Turner if she’s lucky, never conveys the innocence that Juliet must if we are to believe her as she forsakes all for her boy. Julian Cihi is a buff Romeo, but that’s not enough to distract from his failure to embody the necessary hormonal wonder at having fallen in love with so beautiful a girl. They often came across as petulant and annoying rather than as the sweet young lovers we have to root for if the play is to work.
The rest of the young feuding Montagues and Capulets do a lot of snarling and yelling, burying the beauty of poetry that is there even in their violent confrontations. There’s a touch of Baz Luhrman’s Miami-set movie version from 1996 with Leonardo DiCaprio, with several of the characters slipping into Spanish from time to time — but here with no particular rhyme or reason. T.R. Knight as Mercutio seems too old for the role and, like most of those playing the younger characters, he is no match for the poetry.
The saving graces of this production are the grown-ups. Daphne Rubin-Vega is absolutely brilliant as the Nurse, mixing humor, ferocity, and wisdom in equal measure. She dominates every scene she is in and you wish she were in more.
David Garrison as Capulet regally nails Juliet’s imperious, will-not-be-contradicted father, and Kathryn Meisle is affecting as Lady Capulet-as-aging-trophy wife.
Daniel Davis, with a depth in Shakespeare that goes back decades, stepped in for William Hurt as Friar Lawrence and we can be glad he did, lending dignity and illumination to the mad proceedings and beautifully speaking the verse with such an intensity that he looked completely wrung out at the curtain. It is a difficult role as he uses his holy orders to aid and abet the teen lovers and then tries to undo some of the damage through what amounts to witchcraft. The mark that he is slapped with at the end after owning up to his part in the tragedy is shocking but just.
Alagic says she wants to direct all of Shakespeare’s plays. While she was blessed with some good players among her veterans here, she will need a better eye for young talent if she is going to make future stabs at the canon work and a better ear for all that great poetry that in this foray she left on the battlefield.
ROMEO AND JULIET | Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. | Through Nov. 10: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.: Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $60-$125 at ClassicStage.org or 212-352-3101 ; limited $20 tickets on Fri.