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Romeo and Juliet

Lauren Ambrose is the reason to see this otherwise disappointing version of Shakespeare's classic play. logo
Lauren Ambrose and Oscar Isaac
in Romeo and Juliet
(© Michal Daniel)
Thank providence (and Public Theater casting directors Jordan Thaler and Heidi Griffiths) for Lauren Ambrose. She's the bright-eyed reason to see Michael Greif's otherwise disappointing production of Romeo and Juliet, the first of this season's two Shakespeare in the Park offerings.

The rush of adolescent emotion she exhibits during the balcony scene is enough reason to get yourself into one of the Delacorte's seats. With her red hair flowing and pale skin glowing, Ambrose is a Juliet who can't contain her excitement and luck when Romeo comes by inconstant moonlight to propose marriage. Her rapture is such that she even refreshes the challengingly famous "Parting is such sweet sorrow/That I shall say good night till it be morrow."

Ambrose, who was nothing less than brilliant as Clare Fisher, the rebellious daughter on HBO's Six Feet Under, doesn't quite match that acting level as she romps before the shimmering Central Park trees. For the earlier scenes, she and director Greif might have thought more about expressing a 14-year-old girl's naivete. Ambrose also has a habit of wagging her head disconcertingly when uttering Juliet's more urgent speeches. Nevertheless, dressed almost exclusively in white for innocence, Ambrose plumbs Juliet's passions and resolve as the familiar tale unfolds of "two households both alike in dignity" yet losing their children to the sweeping effects of an "ancient grudge."

So effective is Ambrose throughout the balcony scene that she raises Oscar Isaac as Romeo to her figurative and literal level. Until that enchanted sequence, Isaac has been a surprisingly sullen and unimposing young gallant and his way with Shakespeare's poetry has been decidedly less than commanding. When this steeped-in-street-cred Romeo says "Juliet," it comes out "Juli-it." The idiosyncrasy certainly gives new meaning to his beloved's "What's in a name?" query. But when Romeo becomes so infatuated by Juliet that he's impelled to climb up to her perch to steal kisses, Isaac brims with an exuberance he'd hardly evidenced previously and doesn't really radiate again. Indeed, his Romeo is more West Side Story gang member than scion of a family noted for its dignity.

"Dignity" is actually a quality that Greif has pretty much chosen to ignore for his realization of this Shakespearean favorite. Instead, he's brought to life an unusually angry and ungainly Romeo & Juliet, where the characters yell at each other like dock workers and fishwives. Yes, the families are feuding, but he doesn't seem to realize they're the Capulets and the Montagues, not the Hatfields and the McCoys. Occasionally -- as in the scene where Capulet (Michael Cristofer) insists daughter Juliet marry Paris (the moderately dignified Dan Colman) or when Friar Lawrence (Austin Pendleton) advises Romeo about his newfound luck -- Greif might have allowed modulated reasoning to surface. But almost every scene is played at the same heated intensity of the play's sword fights (which Rick Sordelet has staged with his usual flair).

Perhaps the explanation for the version's anger and ungainliness can be traced to Mark Wendland's water-filled set, which is more of a distraction than an asset. Dominating the stage is a circular wading pool over which a metal bridge and runways are placed and frequently repositioned by strong-armed supernumeraries. (It's the bridge which -- when divided in two -- becomes Juliet's balcony.) Maybe anyone would be cranky and look clumsy having to trudge through this bog and then continue acting while the bottom of his trousers or the hem of her skirt is soaked and shoes and sandals are water-logged.

The sole cast member to make hay of the water is Christopher Evan Welch as Mercutio, who tromps through the shallow pond water during his fiery and increasingly incensed Queen Mab speech. He and Timothy D. Stickney, as the Verona prince who considers the Capulet-Montague rivalry a blight on his province, are the best of the not especially effective large supporting ensemble.

Camryn Manheim pleases the crowd by playing the nurse as a good-hearted bawd -- but she also seems louder than needs be. Austin Pendleton's Friar Lawrence could also be pulled back considerably. The others range from adequate to much worse. It's well-known that this Bard item is popular at high schools, but that's no license to play it as if still in high school.

Indeed, when Romeo and Juliet have breathed their star-crossed last, it's Ambrose who spectators will leave remembering.

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