WILLIAMSTOWN -- The Capulets and Montagues are rival street gangs, dancing and yelling and fighting with switchblades. Stop me if you've heard this one.
It's not a terrible idea, of course, but director Will Frears makes the Williamstown Theatre Festival's ``Romeo and Juliet" more ``Verona Vice" than ``West Side Story." We get lots of Latin-inflected rock, a handsomely mottled grotto of a set, tattooed punk kids, and a drug-lordly prince. What we don't get, unfortunately -- from him or the stars, Emmy Rossum and Austin Lysy -- is much sense of careful contemplation or deep emotional connection beneath this flashy surface.
For one thing, Frears has the actors race so quickly through the text that it sometimes seems as if they're embarrassed by the words: ``Let's just get this flowery bit over with, and then we can fight again." Perhaps this, like the deep cutting that reduces the running time to about 2 1/2 hours, is meant to reassure the young or unschooled audiences that too many theaters are afraid of scaring off if they present Shakespeare with a straight face.
The problem, though, is that skimming over the poetry makes it less accessible, not more. When the actors don't engage deeply with every word, neither can we. And then the text becomes exactly what such productions are most afraid of: a pointlessly elaborate ornament, crammed with strange words twisted together in unfamiliar ways, rather than the complex but muscular and profoundly meaningful dramatic language that Shakespeare actually wrote.
Here this mistaken approach is particularly damaging to Lysy's Romeo, who sounds by turns sheepish and bewildered about the weird words he's inexplicably uttering. Yes, Romeo should be a slightly foolish boy, but he has to be a romantic dreamer, not a baffled lug. When we hear Benvolio, for example, telling Romeo that he mourns ``thy good heart's oppression," we should see a heart oppressed by the miseries of young love. Lysy just looks like a kid who's lost his skateboard.
Rossum's Juliet moons more persuasively, and the ``Phantom of the Opera" star's operatic training shows in the tone and control of her voice. But she, too, scants the meaning of the words; she skips and glides over even the most soul-stirring speeches, so that Juliet's vial of sleeping potion might as well be Fanta. And Rossum has the pop star's bad habit of courting the audience with an immovable, dazzling smile -- particularly jarring when she's begging her mother not to cast her away or bewailing Romeo's banishment.
Small wonder, then, that the opening-night audience laughed at some of the strangest times: when Tybalt stabs Mercutio, when Romeo weeps in Friar Laurence's cell, and even when the Nurse discovers, as she believes, Juliet dead. Elsewhere, the atmosphere seems charged with an unearned fury, as in a strangely enraged reading of the usually gossamer-light Queen Mab speech by Benjamin Walker's coarse and utterly unsparkling Mercutio.
Bill Camp provides blessed relief as Friar Laurence; the babbling young lovers would profit by studying how Camp invests even a throwaway line like ``Holy St. Francis!" with a deep understanding of his character's personality and intentions. Other veterans, particularly Daniel Oreskes as a thuggish, gold-chained Capulet and Kristine Nielsen as a bawdy-matronly Nurse, give strong support, too.
And there are nice touches, such as having the onstage band deliver the prologue as a rock anthem. But a ``Romeo and Juliet" that puts its faith in steamy dance scenes and overheated shouting matches, instead of letting the poetry cast its sweet and inexorable spell, is just a teen flick with a talky script.