New York City Theater
"Romeo and Juliet"
Delacorte Theater, Central Park
The four elements -- earth, air, fire, water -- exert their magic in the Publlc Theater / Shakespeare in the Park's headlong and eminently worth seeing production of “Romeo and Juliet” at the outdoor Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park. But water is the most obvious. On Mark Wendland’s distracting, liquid-logged set, the pair of star-cross’d lovers play their rash games while sloshing through a pool that may remind theatergoers more of Venice than Verona.
That the Bard’s most youthful and romantic play comes through as movingly and urgently as it does is tribute to a tragedy that pulls audiences in so many directions at once. Love and hate, life and death, friends and enemies, peace and war, moon and sun, day and night – the work is filled with unnerving, captivating opposites.
Under Michael Greif’s energetic direction, the evening is steeped in the impetuousness of youth. Stripping the work to its core, Greif, the director of “Rent,” fixates on the urgent hormonal pleasures that hasten these lovers towards the consummation of a passion that leads inevitably to the grave.
Downplayed are the societal urges that raise the tale from that of a love story gone wrong to something beyond personal responsibility. It’s not just that the other characters are ranged against the lovers as we get in, say “Spring Awakening.” Rather, it’s that they stand against all the impulses of youth, especially love.
Lauren Ambrose’s stunning Juliet heightens the play’s double image. At the start, she’s naïve and uncomprehending, almost mute with obedience. Later, maturing, she controls the action while imbuing the character with a tragic underpinning, as if knowing all will not end well. Sitting alone against swaying green trees, dressed in a white shift, her red hair cascading down her back, Ambrose strikes a figure at once pitiful and determined.
Oscar Isaac’s Romeo is a put-upon, hot-blooded youth at the mercy of both his buddies and his fate. Although he, too, is driven by his libido, he fails to sense its consequences. One bit that works against him is his eagerness in joining the fray after he’s been married. The text has him trying to stop the fight.
Other actors are also encouraged to pursue single-mindedness. Camryn Manheim is a lusty Nurse. Michael Cristofer is a stern, controlling Capulet and Bryan Tyree Henry is a Tybalt consumed with anger. While Austin Pendleton is weak as Friar Laurence, Christopher Evan Welch is an antic, unfeeling, cynical Mercutio. His Queen Mab speech is filled with a frustration that dares not face itself.
This is a production so saturated with love, so brimming with impulsiveness, that its enchantment is absolute. In Lauren Ambrose it has a Juliet to be reckoned with and, perhaps best of all, it’s free.
David A. Rosenberg
June 28, 2007