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.

Isaac fascinated me from his first scene. I’m used to seeing Romeo enter with an ostentatious woe-is-me demeanor, but Isaac’s Romeo is clearly enjoying the melodrama of his lovelorn life. His deadpan, almost stoned delivery of the line “I am not here. / This is not Romeo; he’s some other where” is hysterical, knowingly so, and later he delivers his giddy assertions that he would “tear the word” of his name if it were paper with wildly cheerful enthusiasm.

This Romeo is in love with “love,” yes, but he’s also in love with the idea of himself as a romantic hero, though he isn’t self-aware enough to realize that. One surmises that, in his eyes, it’s not actually a bad thing that he’s fallen for the daughter of his enemy because that complication makes his story of himself so deliciously melodramatic.

Even after he kills Tybalt, the awful reality of his situation never seems to sink into Romeo’s pretty head. His frenzied sobs over his banishment seem more theatrical than heartfelt, like a child having a tantrum, and he buys poison not with despair but with dark zeal. When he warns Paris to “tempt not a desperate man,” he doesn’t seem desperate, not really, just histrionic, immersed in the part he wants to play. Only after he drinks the poison and sputters “thy drugs are quick” does Romeo seem shocked, brought down to earth, though far too late.

Isaac’s performance is thought-provoking and absorbing, and Ambrose’s performance matches it well. Sheltered and naive, her Juliet nonetheless realizes fairly quickly that hers will not be a storybook marriage. Her palpable, acute isolation as she drinks the friar’s potion is heartbreaking, for unlike Romeo, she truly is desperate. Her parents have turned against her; her beloved nurse, she feels, has betrayed her; and she doesn’t completely trust Friar Laurence to look after her best interests. She is alone, and she feels it, and that—the profound isolation of a troubled young girl, not some “star-crossed love” silliness—is what gives the scene its tragedy.

The supporting actors were generally pretty good, particularly Christopher Evan Welch as a raucous, angry, possibly closeted Mercutio and Camryn Manheim (!) as Juliet’s bawdy but ultimately pragmatic nurse. In an interesting touch, the nurse discovers Juliet’s empty bottle alongside the girl’s apparently lifeless body. She freezes in horror and then quickly pockets it, and for the rest of the play, she is subdued and shamefaced, clearly tormented by the belief that she helped drive her charge to suicide.

So I enjoyed the production tremendously, even if I (like most people, I think) couldn’t figure out why director Grief had chosen to flood his stage. Romeo and Juliet takes place in Verona, not Venice; the prevailing imagery tends more toward fire than water; and the enormous, inches-deep puddle didn’t seem to serve any symbolic purpose, just providing some cool visuals as Mercutio splashs about during his Queen Mab monologue and Tybalt collapses dramatically into a watery grave.

The revolving stage is more successful, eliminating any need to pause between scenes, though sometimes moving forward too briskly. During the Capulets’ party, for example, my gaze was still on Lord Capulet, who had been speaking, when Romeo first spies Juliet, which disappointed me because I love watching how actors play that moment.

But setting that aside, it was a beautiful production, and for those who prefer their Romeo and Juliet more romantic, the bright full moon and starry sky provided breathtaking compensation. If you believe in love at first sight, Central Park provided the perfect environment. And if you’re a curmudgeon like me, Isaac and Ambrose (and, in my ever so humble opinion, Shakespeare himself) seemed to suggest that we’re not alone.