Shakespeare in the Park:  "Romeo and Juliet "
The Public Theater
Delacorte Theatre, New York  
July 5, 2007

by Tom Phillips
copyright © 2007 by Tom Phillips   

This spring and summer, New York has been treated to a three-ring circus of Romeos and Juliets — a pair of ballets by New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre (reviewed here in recent weeks) followed by the real thing — a lusty production of the play, before rapt audiences in the most romantic of settings, Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre. Thursday night’s performance began in a light rain, which beneficently ended midway through act one, accompanied by birdsongs and a flight of herons from the pond in front of Belvedere Castle, just in time for the balcony scene where the star-crossed lovers’ flame ignites. 

The Public Theater promoted this show as a 40th anniversary celebration of 1967’s “Summer of Love,” and in this case the promotion does bear some relation to the production. The setting is Mediterranean but the lovers are American hippies — not the tie-dyed variety but on a deeper level, kids who just want to make love not war. Lauren Ambrose as Juliet is a flower child, with long, loose red hair, a simple white frock, little makeup and a personality of spontaneous combustion. She catches fire with a glance from Oscar Isaac as Romeo, a scruffy good-natured swaggerer who looks as if he picked his costume off the street.  Their first kiss is hungry, heady, heedless.  And just as in the 60s, their summer of love is brief — doomed by the system that encloses them. 

Water and fire are the signal themes of this production.  A circle of torches surrounds the revolving boardwalk of a stage, which in turn encloses a shallow circular pool of water, where the characters embrace, clash and die. Romeo literally carries a torch into the tomb of the Capulets, and extinguishes it in the pool. But the opposites of fire and water are not just a stage gimmick. Director Michael Greif (of “Rent” fame) uses it, along with the revolving set, to bring out the world of the play, where the wheel of causation rapidly grinds everything into its opposite. The theme is first foreshadowed by Mercutio in the “Queen Mab” passage, which begins with fairy grace and morphs into a meditation on foul misfortune. And late in the play it thunders through Juliet’s chamber, where Lord Capulet orders everything changed into its contrary:
            “Our instruments to melancholy bells,
            Our wedding cheer to a sad burial feast,
            Our solemn hymns to sullen dirges change,
            Our bridal flowers serve for a buried corse.” 

Greif’s production succeeds where most others fail in presenting the demise of these lovers as a real tragedy — not an accident of bad timing, missed messages and such, but the inexorable result of living in a world where love doesn’t really have a chance, overwhelmed as it is by uglier passions. The failure of the Friar’s schemes is here not so much the bumbling of a well-intentioned character, but the impotence of good against evil. Mercutio’s rapier wit — dashingly delivered by Christopher Evan Welch — can’t save him from an accidental, mortal wound.  Romeo wants to make love not war, but reverses himself on a dime with Mercutio’s death:
            “…O sweet Juliet,
            Thy beauty hath made me effeminate,            
            And in my temper soften’d valour’s steel!”

Juliet’s faithful nurse cops out under pressure from the family.  And Juliet herself, in her simple white frock, rages against the darkness but ends up embracing it.

As for the acting, Romeo and Juliet were all you could ask for, and Mercutio was as agile with the sword as with his tongue.  Some other roles suffered from the un-subtle approach that’s become the standard style of  Shakespeare in the Park.  Camryn Manheim made too much of her ample body and too little of her lines as the nurse, and even Austin Pendleton as Friar Laurence shouted too often for my taste. 
One drawback of the circular wet set is that it can’t be turned into a proper ballroom, so the dancing has to take place on the rotating boardwalk. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo made the best of it with small clusters of flamenco dancers, a type of dance that suits the fatalistic darkness of the play. The ballroom scene, of course, can’t compare with the Renaissance spectacle that ABT puts on, though it’s more effective than Peter Martins’ desultory Danish Modern version for NYCB.  But Shakespeare in the Park, besides its location, has three reasons to claim the title of best R&J in town:  words, words, words.            

Volume 5, No. 27
July 9, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Tom Phillips

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