Peter Martins’ Romeo + Juliet is now in the midst of a two-week run at the State Theater. Let’s look first at one of its pluses: the plus sign in the title that replaces Shakespeare’s unwieldy “and.” What can it mean? Is it an advance warning that Martins is going to trim all excess fat from this weighty drama? Certainly, his take on the tragic goings-on in old Verona is thin. Consider some of the things that are missing.
1) Verona. This town is seriously underpopulated. In the big public scenes—those meant to show us how the ugly feud between the Montagues and the Capulets is tearing the city apart—there’s no one to be seen except six Montague couples (in green) and six Capulet couples (in red). And, of course, the three young lads—Mercutio, Benvolio and Romeo—and their mortal foe, Tybalt. I take it back: At one point, five little harlequin boys wander over from the School of American Ballet to provide a touch of the cutes.
2) Sex. The main innovation of this production, we’ve been hearing, is that everyone’s young, young, young. Romeo plus Juliet are meant to be real teenagers—in fact, the original first-cast Juliet (she dropped out) is still in the school. But unlike the teenagers in the famous Zeffirelli movie, City Ballet’s teenagers are boyish and girlish but not sexish. They yearn, they hug; Juliet flings back her head in ecstasy, Romeo billows his cloak around the stage when he isn’t straining to hold her aloft in every conventional swooning lift you’ve ever seen; but they just don’t seem to have the hots for each other. Maybe they’re meant to be so young they’re prepubescent?
3) Inventive choreography. The story of Romeo and Juliet is an easy one to tell, since it’s linear and since everyone in the world knows it already. Martins, who’s always had a gift for narrative, has the bones of the story sturdily in place, ready and waiting for a resonant dance approach. It doesn’t come. There are several effective dramatic scenes—for instance, the final confrontation between Juliet and her parents. And the interminable dueling is well handled (although the fatal thrust to Mercutio is awkwardly blurred). But the actual dance passages are purely generic. The quarreling factions, the guests at the Capulet ball, the antics of the lads, are all flavorless, except for some amusing virtuoso stuff for Mercutio; the duets between Romeo and Juliet are flat and derivative. This is the great disappointment: I had hoped that Shakespeare’s heart-tugging story together with the ballet’s swelling Prokofiev score might bring out a more expressive side of Martins’ temperament, but no. The choreography, although always professional, is just slapped on to keep the plot going, not to evoke a world or a tragedy.
4) Taste. Martins’ commitment to his compatriot, the Danish artist Per Kirkeby, is beyond my understanding. His notoriously inappropriate designs helped to wreck Martins’ Swan Lake, and his R + J is just as counterproductive. The curtain goes up on a stubby construction that looks like cinderblock, against a violent backdrop of abstract reds, blacks and ochers. Is this Romeo or is it Le Sacre du Printemps? The cinderblock structure opens up and moves about to become Juliet’s bedroom, Friar Laurence’s cell, the ballroom, the tomb, etc.—at its most ridiculous when the balcony scene becomes the battlement scene. (Are the two Danes confusing Verona with Elsinore?) And the costumes are equally off-putting. Tybalt’s canary-yellow outfit may be the most egregious, but Paris’ lavender tights are in the running. The ball costumes are fussy and cheap, and in rancid colors. Yet for all the in-your-face visuals, the overall effect is ultra-minimal. There’s no physical surround for the action to inhabit.