It's The '90S, So The Bard Is Back

THE BARD IS HOT IN Hollywood, no question about it. Here's Al Pacino in ""Looking for Richard,'' taking to the streets in his backward baseball cap to drum up enthusiasm for Shakespeare--less than a year after Ian McKellen showed us even better how much venomous fun ""Richard III'' could be. Now, simultaneously, we have Baz Luhrmann's wild, whacked-out ""Romeo and Juliet'' and Trev- or Nunn's gender-bending ""Twelfth Night,'' with a sumptuous Kenneth Branagh ""Hamlet'' coming at Christmas.

Is there a method in this madness for the Elizabethan? A simple, bottom-line explanation is the success of Branagh's ""Henry V'' in 1989, which opened the door for Mel Gibson's ""Hamlet,'' Branagh's sunny ""Much Ado About Nothing'' and the Laurence Fishburne ""Othello'' (not to mention ""My Own Private Idaho,'' in which Gus Van Sant snuck Falstaff into Seattle). But Luhrmann, the 33-year-old Australian director of ""Strictly Ballroom,'' has a meta-explanation. ""When you get to a time of change--moving toward the millennium--people start to interpret classic texts again. They start to look for those things that have a universal center. And they say, "What does it mean to us now?' ''

History bears him out. The last time there was a burst of revisionist Shakespeare on screen was indeed a time of change--the roiling late '60s and early '70s, which brought us Orson Welles's great ""Chimes at Midnight,'' Zeffirelli's flower-child ""Romeo and Juliet,'' Peter Brook's existential ""King Lear'' and Polanski's violent ""Macbeth,'' among others. And the time before that was World War II, when Olivier's ""Henry V'' was a rousing call to arms.

Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet shows its pulsating '90s colors from the get-go: the prologue is delivered by a TV anchorwoman. Ancient, feud-ridden Verona is now Verona Beach, a teeming, violent, multicultural Latin metropolis where the gun-packing Montague and Capulet gangs are first seen shooting it out in a gas station. The cutting is MTV frantic--and the cutting of the text is drastic, too. Mercutio is a black drag queen (Harold Perrineau); Juliet's Nurse (Miriam Margolyes) is a matronly Latina spitfire; herbalist Father Laurence (Pete Postlethwaite) sports a tattooed cross on his back; the famous balcony scene between our teenage lovers (Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes) is staged in a lighted swimming pool, and a boys' choir in Father Laurence's chapel harmonizes to Prince's ""When Doves Cry.''

It's garish, but it's not dumb. The director's vision of Verona Beach as a combustible mix of Roman Catholicism, power politics, bottled-up sexuality and uncorked violence makes potent sense for this tale of ""death-marked love.'' Luhrmann, production designer Catherine Martin and costume designer Kym Barrett make tactile the moral pollution these desperately romantic lovers are trying to escape. But at times this ""Romeo and Juliet'' is so enslaved by its worship of Energy you want to slip it a Valium. When all the warring boys are screaming Shakespearean oaths that they barely seem to understand and that the blaring music nearly drowns out, you wish Luhrmann had more faith in our attention spans.

Alternately enrapturing and exhausting, brilliant and glib, this is a ""Romeo and Juliet'' more for the eyes than the ears. It's not hard to tell which of the actors is most comfortable with the poetry. Every scene with the marvelous Margolyes (employing a Carmen Miranda accent) and Postlethwaite (an Irish actor doing an American accent) snaps into focus: suddenly the words make sharp sense, the nuances bloom. DiCaprio, 21, and Danes, 16, are two of the most gifted young actors in Hollywood, but as the world's most famous lovers, they don't quite connect. DiCaprio is a wonderfully boyish Romeo--impetuous, passionate, in love with love (Luhrmann has him jotting down his ruminations in a journal--a nice touch). Danes is less successful: that quality of cloaked emotion that works for her elsewhere makes her Juliet a touch remote, and her petulant intonations bring the soaring poetry down to Valley-girl level.

For all the excitement this production supplies, there is finally something amiss in a ""Romeo and Juliet'' whose final scene doesn't tear your heart. Luhrmann pays a price for his relentless razzle-dazzle: by the time he needs to throw his knockout blow, he's punched himself out.

Strangely, Nunn's Twelfth Night--a supposedly airy comedy--ultimately proves more moving than ""Romeo and Juliet.'' Nunn takes his own cinematic liberties with the text, even writing a new narration for the opening shipwreck that separates Viola (Imogen Stubbs) and Sebastian (Stephen Mackintosh), the twins who believe each other dead. Nunn sets the tale in 1890s dress, and conjures up a handsome, autumnal Illyria where the gaiety of the proceedings is tinged with melancholy. Those classic clowns Sir Toby Belch (Mel Smith) and Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant) here seem more pathetic than hilarious: the knockabout, crowd-pleasing stuff that has made this arguably Shakespeare's most popular comedy doesn't really come to life in Nunn's twilight vision. Ben Kingsley's clown Feste (overworking his Rasputin stare) becomes the surprisingly severe truth teller of the play, to the point where this clown can seem almost as morally smug as party pooper Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne).

What works like a charm is the amorous comedy of sexual confusion, as Viola, disguised as a boy, woos the Countess Olivia (a delightful Helena Bonham Carter) on behalf of the man Viola is really in love with, Orsino (Toby Stephens), only to have Olivia fall in love with her, thinking she's a guy. Nunn has rightly perceived that in the age of ""To Wong Foo'' and ""The Birdcage,'' Shakespeare has plenty to tell us about the delicate and shifting balances of sexual desire. Whatever quibbles one has about this ""Twelfth Night'' fall aside in the rousing homestretch, when Nunn and his wonderful cast play their delicious trump cards, and Shakespeare's merry artifice reveals its timeless art.