Rupert Goold’s new production of Romeo and Juliet, the second Royal Shakespeare Company show running this summer at the Park Avenue Armory as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, grabs you from the start. There’s a surprisingly physical, well-choreographed street battle between the feuding Capulets and Montagues that boasts ambitious swordplay, bursts of steam, and fireballs shooting up from the stage. At one point, poor Benvolio (Oliver Ryan) is nearly burned at the stake before our eyes.
Goold emphasizes the youth of the heroes of the Bard’s classic tragedy. While most of the cast dresses in Elizabethan garb, including doublets and hose for the guys, the star-crossed lovers look like teenagers who’ve wandered in from the mall: Juliet (a nicely petulant Mariah Gale) wears Converse sneakers and T-shirts, while Romeo (an aptly brooding Sam Troughton) dons skinny jeans and a hoody. We first meet Romeo as he puts on headphones for an audio tour of the cathedral at Verona; the recording plays in two languages before he hits the button for an English recording of the Bard’s prologue. A digital camera also hangs around his neck (he’ll later use the prop with Benvolio to share photos of Rosaline, his pre-Juliet crush).
That’s not the only departure from tradition: Jonjo O’Neill’s Mercutio is a peroxide blond motor-mouth with a comic sensibility that’s as blue as the late George Carlin. Guards arrive with walkie talkies (and fire extinguishers), and Romeo pours his fatal poison into a plastic water bottle.
Despite the anachronistic touches, Goold’s overall approach to Romeo and Juliet is remarkably straight — unlike his more radical, Stalinist take on Macbeth, seen on Broadway in 2008 starring Patrick Stewart. In fact, given the show’s nearly three-and-a-half hour running time, one sometimes wishes Goold & Co. had departed more frequently from the norm (and perhaps wielded a dagger to trim some of the draggier scenes). The supporting players are all first rate, with notable turns from Noma Dumezweni’s pipe-smoking Nurse and Richard Katz’s unyielding Capulet. But in the end, it is the title characters who command our attention: to their youth, to their impetuousness, to how good they look in jeggings. B+
(Tickets: 212-721-6500 or lincolncenterfestival.org)