The Old Globe's lovely but empty "Romeo and Juliet" plays the first half as a blithe Italian Renaissance romantic comedy, until an inadvertent misstep suddenly plunges all concerned into chiaroscuro tragedy.

The Old Globe’s lovely but empty “Romeo and Juliet” plays the first half as a blithe Italian Renaissance romantic comedy, until an inadvertent misstep suddenly plunges all concerned into chiaroscuro tragedy. Concept sounds tidy in theory but proves sophomoric and absurdly reductive in performance. When there’s nothing titanic at stake in act one — no emotional weight leavening the hijinks — act two is doomed to posturing and melodramatic excess. Juliet (Heather Wood) complains Romeo (Graham Hamilton) kisses “by the book,” which pretty much describes this interpretation.

Helmer Richard Seer knows how to assemble striking stage pictures but rarely locates complex, believable human behavior within them. The opening mass brawl bursts with swordplay and horseplay and bustling laundresses, without ever suggesting the Montague/Capulet feud is of life and death concern to the families.

The Capulet ball is as handsomely lit and danced as its character interactions are muddy. Romeo’s first view of Juliet barely registers.

Issues underlying the star-cross’d lovers’ dilemma, notably the risk of significant sin should Juliet take a second husband while already wed to Romeo, are discussed in production notes but absent from the stage. As Deborah Taylor’s Nurse counsels concerning the secret bigamy, Juliet can’t be bothered to turn her head to register surprise, alarm or horror. Typical of this production, she reacts to bad news by staring out as if posing for a coin.

Characterizations are perfunctory almost across the board. The older gentlemen are largely interchangeable irritated coots, Friar Laurence (James R. Winker) standing apart by virtue of machine-gun, tongue-twisting line deliveries as if he’s chomping at the bit to exit.

Among the younger generation, Owiso Odera wraps so much physical biz and vocal trickery around Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech you don’t hear a word he’s saying or know why he’s saying it, and the deathbed curse — “a plague on both your houses” — comes out of nowhere. Anthony von Halle’s petulance falls far short of Tybalt’s rep as dangerous prince of cats; John Keabler’s Paris is a mere affable simp.

Then there are the charisma-free titular lovers, who never emphasize one noun or verb in a verse line when there are three available to pound. Wood ekes out some maturity by the end despite a chirpy delivery accentuated by an ever-present throaty sob, but Hamilton’s monotonously moony, ingenuous Romeo remains exactly the same from opening to final fadeout.

Of the principals, only Taylor’s unfussy, elemental Nurse impresses as a three-dimensional portrayal. Her sour, cynical attendant Peter (Sloan Grenz) rather shamelessly plays for laughs but gets them, not least because Grenz establishes a distinctive persona within the generic ensemble.

Cast inhabits Anna R. Oliver’s sumptuous costumes as everyday garb (though the families are too conveniently color-coded). The strong sense of place evoked by Ralph Funicello’s series of imposing iron gates and minimal set pieces is complemented by York Kennedy’s complex lighting, shifting as per concept from an initial broad wash to carefully focused splashes of light amidst the gloom.

Still, the dazzled eye can’t fully engage when the ear and mind insist on wandering, especially over three hours.

Romeo and Juliet

Lowell Davies Festival Theater, San Diego; 612 seats; $64 top

Production

An Old Globe presentation of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Richard Seer.

Creative

Sets, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Anna R. Oliver; lighting, York Kennedy; sound and original music, Christopher R. Walker; fight director, Steve Rankin; choreography, Wesley Fata; stage manager, Mary K Klinger. Opened, reviewed July 2, 2008. Runs through Sept. 28. Running time: 2 HOURS, 50 MIN.

Cast

Juliet - Heather Wood Romeo - Graham Hamilton Nurse - Deborah Taylor Friar Laurence - James R. Winker Lady Capulet - Kandis Chappell Mercutio - Owiso Odera Tybalt - Anthony von Halle Benvolio - Michael Kirby Peter - Sloan Grenz Paris - John Keabler
With: Ashley Clements, Joy Farmer-Clary, Vivia Font, Kimberly Parker Green, Wynn Harmon, Sam Henderson, Brian Lee Huynh, Charles Janasz, Kern McFadden, Jonathan McMurtry, Barbra Wengerd.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more