Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare in the Park, presented by the Public Theater, on Saturday, June 30.

The tagline for this season’s Shakespeare in the Park is “Free Love.” You see those words plastered on buses and in subway stations, and it strikes me as ironic because Oscar Isaac and Lauren Ambrose, playing the parts of Romeo and Juliet, interpreted their roles with the least amount of romanticism I’ve even seen in a production of the play. In their hands, real love barely figured into the tragedy.

I don’t mean that as criticism. Despite the Prince’s final speech—with its facile “feuds are bad” moral and canonization of the poor foolish teenagers—I’ve always felt that Romeo and Juliet is ultimately about the dangers of rash decision-making, and not just on the part of the title characters. Mercutio’s heedless push to crash the Capulets’ party, Tybalt’s pugnacious insistence of dueling, and Lord Capulet’s impulsive decision to marry off his daughter (despite his earlier vow that he would only do so with her assent)—to name just three examples—all play into the disastrous chain of events that leave not two but, lest we forget, six people dead.

I’m not sure whether director Michael Grief intended his production to be read this way, but in my eyes, Isaac’s Romeo never matured from impetuous to passionate, and Ambrose’s Juliet did so only fleetingly. Partly because of that and partly because of the great use of humor in the earlier acts, Romeo and Juliet became less sentimental, less about love and more about the folly of youth.