When your star-crossed lovers are swooning and suffering beneath an actual starry sky, you can get away with almost anything. Likewise, when your characters invoke the moon by gesticulating to a brilliant lunar half-circle hovering conveniently overhead while a brisk wind stirs the surrounding trees. Often, nature colludes with a director to make Shakespeare in the Park even more enchanting, and that was certainly the case on press night for Michael Greif’s staging of “Romeo & Juliet,” erasing concerns over the production’s perplexing visual concept and not always harmonious performances.
Last produced at the Delacorte in 1968, Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy of bitter, meaningless interfamilial hatred that destroys youth and love seems ideally suited to make this quintessential rite of summer in New York an even more evocative experience. Who doesn’t remember the intoxicating spell of a first love that feels as essential as oxygen? Watching the play in the crisp evening air brings those joys and heartaches back more vividly.
For most of us, “R&J” served as our high school introduction to Shakespeare, its sorrowful tale made more indelible over the years by countless reinterpretations, from “West Side Story” to Baz Luhrmann’s aggressively teen-skewed update. This is the third major appearance of the archetypal love story in little more than a month in New York, following productions of the Prokofiev work from both City Ballet and American Ballet Theater.
The full-text, four-century-old original shows up less frequently, yet its familiarity and the relative simplicity of its language contribute to make it among the most accessible of Shakespeare’s plays, allowing for unhindered immersion in its powerful emotional currents.
Greif and designer Mark Wendland create a distraction from that immersion with a (noisily) revolving set featuring a 70-foot pool of water through which the actors wade and splash, with a gangplank, a surrounding wooden deck and a movable metal bridge. Its resemblance to an industrial take on the Rialto Bridge only heightens the confusing suspicion that we might have detoured from Verona to Venice.
“Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptis’d,” says Romeo in the balcony scene, which comes as close as anything to explaining the mystifying design conceit. But the key here is just to go with it. The watery playing space may not make narrative sense, but it’s visually beguiling, especially in the dynamically staged swordplay (nice work from fight director Rick Sordelet) that claims the lives of Mercutio and Tybalt.
As always with Shakespeare in the Park productions, the performances range across a few too many styles, but even the most disconcerting of them don’t diminish the play’s spell. The most immediately commanding in the traditional Bardic mode is Michael Cristofer’s bracing Capulet, whose grief is as trenchant as his anger.
The Park approach generally is to play it large and, where possible, for laughs. Fulfilling that function are Christopher Evan Welch as a prancing, smartass Mercutio and Camryn Manheim as Juliet’s bawdy, down-to-earth Nurse.
Both actors, however, go beyond their enjoyable scene-stealing antics to navigate persuasive transformations. Joking and hissing like a cat at Bryan Tyree Henry’s dour Tybalt one minute, Welch’s Mercutio is driven by the mortal wound he receives to stricken acrimoniousness as he spits out his curse “A plague on both your houses.” Manheim may make the most lascivious work of anyone in history out of rolling a cigarette. But later, she’s heartbreaking when the Nurse reveals her pained devotion while lying to Juliet about the benefits of forsaking Romeo to marry Paris.
Oscar Isaac plays the lovestruck son of Montague as a slightly stoned, folky poet. While his Romeo at times seems uncomfortable in the throes of adolescent rapture, he becomes increasingly affecting as ecstasy gives way to anguish.
Then there’s Juliet, who could scarcely be lovelier. Lauren Ambrose starts out over-emphatically, and her contemporary manner takes some getting used to. (Emilio Sosa’s costumes keep the period undefined, ranging from basic Elizabethan to 1940s.) But behind her conversational delivery it soon becomes apparent the actress has carefully considered the meaning of every line. She has the purity of a 14-year-old girl, breathless and half-mad with excitement when love suddenly overpowers her. Yet she’s also defiant and self-possessed.
With her rust-colored hair and alabaster skin, Ambrose seems to glow in Donald Holder’s burnishing lighting, making it entirely plausible when Romeo’s eyes go straight to her in the midst of a crowded ball. While they are not a great physical match, Ambrose and Isaac play the balcony scene with touching delicacy — giggling, awkward and dreamy with astonishment as the words of love pour almost involuntarily out of them.
Wendland’s bridge structure is reconfigured to particularly good effect in this scene and later to serve as the churchyard and tomb.
Greif brings boisterous energy to the first act, keeping his cast dashing around, across and through the pool, not to mention up and down the bridge like athletes in training. But it’s when things slow down and turn somber that the production hits its full stride. The image of three corpses carried in on biers and laid on the water is an especially haunting one.
When Juliet wakes from her drugged sleep of artificial death to find Romeo’s lifeless body beside her, as if on cue at the performance reviewed, the wind cranked up to shimmer across the pool and send the shrouds flapping like sails. That unplanned assist from a celestial stagehand made an intensely moving scene even more stirring and beautiful.