From the second you see Tybalt’s spring-loaded dagger ka-chunk out of its scabbard, your blood sings: holy house-poxes! Director Rupert Goold (Enron, the Patrick Stewart Macbeth) is, like, totally gonna do a Romeo and Juliet/Brotherhood of the Wolf mash-up! Goold, as fans and non-fans of his work will both attest, is not a man of small gestures. Belching jets of flame! Geysers of pressurized steam! Thwapping ropes and clanking chains straight from some Wall Street dominatrix’s dungeon! All kissed with sultry club lighting imported from a high-end teen vampire flick! For a second, his R&J (staged at the Park Avenue Armory) looks poised to erupt into a hormonally engorged, steampunk summer action-adventure, something to rival the gangland excesses of Baz Lurhmann’s sun-drenched gangland version. And the Royal Shakespeare Company’s three-tiered theater (modeled after its home theater in Stratford-upon-Avon and parked in the Park Avenue Armory) starts to resemble a steel cage.
We don’t quite get there: Goold never quite loses us in the pure bumptious action of the play — Shakespeare’s fleetest and least think-y tragedy — nor does he invite us to sit back on our heels and watch the familiar tale of star-crossed lovers play out, at a distance. Instead, he places us in an uneasy middle seat, impressed by the seemingly autonomic passion of mopey Romeo (Sam Troughton*) and sullen-to-the-point-of-saturnine Juliet (Mariah Gale), but baffled by its meaning and motivation.
There’s certainly a prickly passion between them, but Goold doesn’t go goopy: He’s suspicious of the profound self-involvement of the young and treats them warily, keeps them at a distance — from us, and, to an extent, from each other. Troughton and Gale have the raw energy of a Romanian gymnastics squad, but when they speak to each other … well, they don’t so much speak to each other as emit their iconic lines at an ironic remove (Juliet) or padded with emo affectation (Romeo). It’s almost as if they’re tweeting to each other. (“Give me my sin again!!!” [Send.]) Their youth is so protean, so molten and volatile, they barely know who they are: Juliet is traditionally played as slightly ahead of Romeo on the development scale, but Gale (in a performance that will surely split audiences) gives us a very poker-faced Juliet, driven by deep currents of amorphous anger. Maybe she inherited that bad temper from her father, Lord Capulet (Richard Katz)? She’s certainly not charmed by the pantaloonish goofs of her Nurse, played with seemingly effortless comic verve and smoky sadness by the great Noma Dumezweni. Romeo seems likewise nonplussed by his comic foil, the red-rubber-ball Mercutio (Jonjo O’Neill), here a sprightly ADD-demon, an oddly likable misogynist who practically explodes with stopped-up sexual frustration every moment he’s onstage. O’Neill, at one point, mocks the lovestruck Romeo by imagining him literally swallowed up in a consuming orifice, embarked on a two-minute scatalogical spelunking mission — which he conducts in vivid pantomime that would make Chaucer blush. (Describing it in any more detail would ruin the magic, but suffice it to say: He goes deep. Deep.) His famous deathbed curse — “A plague o’ both your houses!” — is pitched so high and hard, it’s a little difficult to locate tonally, as it should be: Mercutio’s death is one Shakespeare’s cruelest. He dies like an animal, in pain and confusion, without understanding, without revelation, his bosom friend revealed as a stranger, his life leaking out of him through a gash that seems to widen with every puffing breath he spends trying to describe it. (It’s a little like how I’ve always imagined Falstaff’s death — a moment so crushing, Shakespeare couldn’t actually bring himself to stage it.) O’Neill, wisely, makes Merc’s death just another outlying point along the jagged line of his rollicking life; even in his final thrashes, he resists our sympathy. An asshole to the last: I respect the hell out of that.
As for the star couple: They’re an odd pair. Their passion has a herky-jerky quality; we idealize the sexuality of the young, but these two, we sense, probably have an awkward, elbows-and-knees kind of first-coupling. They’re all crazy angles and nervous energy. Nobody can get through to these youngsters. They’re not of our world, or even theirs. Their time is literally out of joint with the rest of the play’s universe: Unlike their doublet-and-hosed coevals and family members, R and J sport contemporary clothing. (Romeo looks like a backup bassist for Animal Collective; Juliet just walked out of American Apparel.) Goold begins his tale with a hipster-drifter visiting Verona, guided by a taped walking tour (i.e., the “Two houses” prologue); he closes with most of the cast on stage in modern garb, underlining a (highly nonliteral) sense of temporal dislocation and eternal return. I walked out both bewitched and befuddled; I get the sense that Goold was, too, when he conceived this production. He seems ravished by the unknowability of the voracious young. When that happy dagger finally ends Gale’s impenetrable black box of a Juliet, I expected a tiny glimpse of insight, of vulnerability, of something more than a bluff or a status update. Instead, Jule blew me back with a from-the-diaphragm roar of what sounded less like an existential love howl and more like pure punk rage. Where, exactly, does the anger come from? Ancient grudges, adolescent tantrums and modern resonances aside, Goold doesn’t really have an answer. Maybe no one does, and maybe that’s the point.
The hardbodies of Hair (revived for the summer from the 2009 Diane Paulus production) are pretty het-up, too, though they’re better at expressing their frustration through sex — or, if not through sex itself, then through sexual dance gyrations. My God, what do you think Hair was like before Pilates? The reconstituted hippies on display here come in many colors and flavors, but they all have the same Kevlar stomach, with ab dimples in exactly the same configuration, as if punched out by a McRib machine. They smell of Kiehl’s and conditioner, not patchouli or skunkweed or (God forbid) good old-fashioned slept-in-the-park B.O. (There’s a Fifth Wall — the olfactory one — that mainstream theater will never, ever dare break.) I find Hair an immensely entertaining show; there’s not a bad song in the mix, and the deadly paradox of self-snuffing American liberty at the core of its frizzy being is still just as tragically relevant today. I scarcely need fake hippies climbing on my seat to make me sing along. I’m there for the same reason everyone else is: to watch very good pornography in an age of sexual and political gelding that is, most likely, here to stay. We’ll never feel that young again. It’s not a tragedy or even a shame; it’s just the way it is.
*I saw Troughton, though he was injured in a recent performance; Romeo will be played by understudy Dyfan Dwyfor until further notice.
Romeo and Juliet is playing in rep at the Park Avenue Armory through August 14; Hair is at the St. James until September 5, as part of its national tour