… Where art Romeo and Juliet? …

What I liked best about this Classic Stage production of Romeo and Juliet was the depiction of the men around the Montague Romeo and those around the Capulets as young toughs with a contemporary style.  Nothing new about that, of course, think of West Side Story, and Shakespeare in contemporary dress is commonplace.  But Harry Ford (substituting the night I attended for T. R. Knight), with his thick body packed into leather and to-the-head corn rows makes a charismatic Mercutio, volatile, dirty-mouthed, amused and amusing, and the rest of the guys fit in to the idea, though they’re not consistently as convincing. 

Shakespeare’s poetry is spoken throughout with an ineffective mix of over-contemporary-casual and over-emphasis on the last beat of each iambic line:  strange bed-fellows.  Much of the dialog is spoken so to-the-chest or throw-away, that it’s hard to catch — this is particularly true of Romeo, played by Julian Cihi, but in general the poetry and even a lot of the words are sacrificed in the name of contemporary naturalism.  The upshot:  the speech sounds artificial and the poetic power is lost.

What a relief when Daniel Davis as Friar Laurence is on stage: he speaks with complete naturalism while conveying the rhythms and beauty of the poetry, and the projection of his clear, emotionally powerful voice is exciting.  His strength makes the character of Friar Laurence seem more central than in other productions, and that in itself is illuminating.

Like Ford as Mercutio, Daphne Rubin-Vega plays Juliet’s nurse in a vivid characterization based on a contemporary type.  Rubin-Vega’s Nurse is a bust-in-your-face Hispanic woman with an alluring accent — think Chita Rivera — with a crisp, aggressive white blouse, black harem pants and high heels that rock her through a fascinating gait.  Excitement leads her to lapse sometimes into rapid-fire Spanish that even a native Spanish speaker might miss:  evidently the director thought it was OK for the audience to lose her words for the sake of naturalism and humor but — at the risk of being a stick-in-the-mud — with Shakespeare, I’d rather hear all the words.  Still, there’s a welcome freshness to bringing the nurse out of the shadows of servility and showing her as a feisty foreigner.

But Romeo (Cihi) and Juliet, played by Elizabeth Olsen, are the least effective actors in the production.  Passion? What passion?  Cihi never seems deeply affected by Juliet.  Juliet’s main approach seemed to be to raise her voice all-out loud to convey strong feeling, straining her throat.  There’s no erotic chemistry, even in bed.  Simply put, these two young actors have at this point neither the emotional depth nor the stage presence to carry such roles.

Instead of an ensemble flow in this production, there’s a range of styles and performance individuality.  It follows that the production leaves one with the impression of a few stellar bits.  Mercutio, the Nurse, and Friar Laurence are well worth seeing.

Romeo and Juliet  plays at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan’s East Village through November 10, 2013.