Romeo and Juliet
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
June 24, 2007
(For a detailed plot synopsis, click here.)
The heart and soul of The Public Theater's new outdoor revival of Romeo & Juliet lies in the engaging performances of its two angelic stars, Oscar Isaac and Lauren Ambrose. Playing the most appealing pair of star-crossed lovers one could possibly imagine, Isaac and Ambrose lead a spirited production that breathes new life into the fiery urgency of William Shakespeare's classic tragedy.
Or, is it a tragedy? One may not necessarily think so from watching the play's first half, which director Michael Greif handles as a cross between one of Shakespeare's pastoral comedies and one of his late romances. He finds previously untapped reserves of humor in the text that liberates both his cast and the audience from their preconceived notions of this famous work. Who knew Romeo & Juliet could be so funny? It isn't until late in Act I, after the fatal duel between Mercutio, Tybalt, and Romeo, that the production even begins to hint at the dark resolution that lies ahead.
Romeo & Juliet turns serious pretty fast after that, and consequently loses a little bit of steam. Trading gravitas for buoyancy, the production begins to drag in certain places before picking itself back up for a strong finish that is truly saddening.
For the most part, though, Greif hits the nail on the head. The most striking thing about this Romeo & Juliet is how urgent and new it feels. Greif's direction emphasizes the giddy, all-consuming passion of new love, without telegraphing the tragedy to come until it hits the characters square in the face. I wouldn't be surprised if this is the freshest this story has felt since, at least, the premiere of West Side Story.
There are a couple of trouble spots, most notably Mark Wendland's rotating scaffold-like set which is dominated by a shallow wading pool that spans the entire area of the stage. Both thematically and symbolically, I don't know what he and Greif are trying to convey by doing the show in the water. Granted, the pool is cool, and the actors seem to be enjoying it, but it feels pretty incongruous with what's going on. Similarly, the scaffolding looks good, but jams Greif up in the crowd scenes, where his points of focus grow cloudy. Plus, with a never-ending configuration of planks and staircases, Wendland's set makes scene transitions unnecessarily complicated.
But, the acting is pretty much flawless. Isaac gives a star-making performance as Romeo, commanding the stage with disarming leading-man ease. Ambrose is a luminous presence, both pure and sensual. Both actors have a nimble facility with Shakespeare's verse, and really get to the heart of its meaning. And, boy, do they have chemistry! Their balcony scene together is so fresh and alive you may almost feel as if you've never seen or heard it before. I know I did.
Other standouts in this wonderful cast include the ubiquitous Christopher Evan Welch, in a memorably rowdy turn as the headstrong Mercutio (his take on the Queen Mab speech is venomously savage); Camryn Manheim, who provides plenty of earthy bonhomie as the Nurse; Austin Pendleton, who elevates himself to national treasure status with his fully invested, emotionally endowed rendering of Friar Laurence; and playwright Michael Cristofer (of The Shadow Box fame), giving a distinguished performance as Juliet's hot-tempered and irrational father, Lord Capulet.
Once again, The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park does a great job of making the world's most popular playwright accessible to the masses he so willingly wrote for. If you think you've seen Romeo & Juliet, think again. This talented company has some neat tricks up their sleeves that will make you look at this enduring classic with new eyes.