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A CurtainUp Review
Romeo and Juliet

A plague o' both your houses!
---Mercutio, Act III, scene i

Lauren Ambrose and Oscar Isaac
L. Ambrose and O. Isaac
(Photo: Mical Daniel)

Mother Nature looked with favor on this production (on the night I saw it at least -- preceding nights were, alas, not so lucky). It was, to my preferences and recollection, the finest weather I've ever experienced for Shakespeare in the Park. The only showers in evidence were those of good fortune bestowed on the production by, I suppose, the theater gods. Even though "the two hours' traffic of our stage" managed to consume a full three hours of the audience's time, and all was not well in this Verona, it was a pleasurable experience overall, and boasted some of the most consistently capable acting (in the Park) in recent memory.

That the title characters (Oscar Isaac and Lauren Ambrose) acquitted themselves well is good news, but perhaps not surprising, given the actors' track records and the lyricism Shakespeare afforded their characters. What's more unusual is that both the Mercutio of Christopher Evan Welch and the Capulet of Michael Cristofer successfully notched up the degree to which we give them special attention. "Notching up" threatened to reach epidemic proportions, however, and was less welcome, particularly, in Friar Lawrence (Austin Pendleton), Lady Montague (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) and the Nurse (Camryn Manheim). The former two exhibited uncalled-for stridency while the latter depreciated the Nurse in one (very broad) note.

Ms. Ambrose proved to be a stunning, impeccable Juliet, credibly conveying the charm, innocence and emotional state of a character Shakespeare envisioned at literally half her age. She is rightfully the star of this production. Giving her a run for her money -- and this, of course, is the shock -- is not the sure-footed Mr. Isaac but the tempest-in-a-teapot Mr. Welch. That he is to be featured in a new way becomes immediately apparent as he commandeers the prologue. Through a particularly comedic rendition of Mercutio, he manages to wrest control of the play's moral core such that by the time of his thrice-stated curse, quoted above, and subsequent demise, he has practically taken the wind out of Escalus's sail at the play's end.

That this is perhaps the most familiar of all plays is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it allows us to forgive director Michael Greif's lapses in the story-telling; on the other hand, it heightens our awareness of those failings.

Much has been made of the huge pool of water set designer Mark Wendland has designed to practically fill the Delacorte stage. It makes no sense, but it becomes an apt explanation for the general problem in Mr. Greif's directorial choices. Verona is not a city of water. It is also not a city in which the violence on its streets amounts to little more than teenage brawls in which fruit carts gets overturned. Yet that's what we have here.

What the play demands is a town brought to the brink of anarchy by warring families. It is also a play in which Romeo is not a merry and horny prankster but a young man smitten by Juliet, a young man willing to take his life in his hands to have her, a young man willing to do anything to be with her. Oscar Isaac's Romeo -- and it is truly a function of the play's direction and not his performance -- is none of those things. We do not believe the play's danger, and if we didn't walk into the theater aware of it, it wouldn't exist. And without that element, the play, and its Romeo, unfortunately just don't make sense.

The water is not the only rampant complaint about Mr. Wendland's set. It's huge turntable is noisy. Still, it has many virtues and in sum, you may be surprised to hear, I quite liked it. It certainly proved flexible, and at key times dramatic, though (as someone seated near me offered), "Mantua looks an awful lot like Verona". Donald Holder's lighting supported it well and was effective throughout. I'm not sure I can be quite as positive regarding Emilio Sosa's costume designs, in which the conflicted families don't seem to have a disagreement as to how they dress, noblemen look like the people who might offer to carry your bags at a hotel on Central Park that hasn't been converted to a condominium yet, Romeo doesn't dress like anyone and only Juliet wears either white (=purity) or black (=mourning).

With all that's wrong, the biggest surprise of all is that the joys of the play seem immune to destruction. So I'll leave it at that: enjoyable, yes; well acted, for sure; sensible, not this time.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Grief
with Opal Alladin, Lauren Ambrose, George Bartenieff, Ari Brand, Anthony Carrigan, Dan Colman, Michael Cristofer, Tiffany Danielle, Seth Duerr, Quincy Dunn-Baker, Saidah Arrika Ekulona, Christian Felix, Brian Tyree Henry, Susan Hyon, Oscar Isaac, Alexander Lane, Camryn Manheim, Orville Mendoza, Owiso Odera, Jeffrey Omura, Lucas Papaelias, Austin Pendleton, , Alex Podulke, Mary Rasmussen, Cornelius Smith, Jr., Alexander Sovronsky, Timothy D. Stickney and Christopher Evan Welch
Set Design: Mark Wendland
Costume Design: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Composer: Michael Friedman
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Choreographer: Sergio Truljillo
Running Time: 3 hours, including one intermission
A production of The Public Theater
Delacorte Theatre, Central Park (enter park @81st Street/CPW or 79th/5 Av.)
Telephone (212) 539-8750 Public Theater website:
Opening June 24, 2007, closes July 8, 2007
Tues - Sun @8:30; Free, limit of 2 per person (ticket pickup at the Delacorte or The Public beginning at 1 P.M. and elsewhere in all 5 boroughs on specified days -- see The Public Theater website)
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 6/22/07 performance
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