Romeo and Juliet

The Royal Shakespeare Company at the Park Avenue Armory on Friday, August 5, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

Romeo and Juliet can be a dreamy, romantic play, but it doesn’t have to be. That is, in fact, one of the things that makes the play so fascinating, so rewatchable: the lovers, their relationship, and the world around them shifts with every actor, every director.

Personally, I like a coolly clear-eyed interpretation, never glorifying the lovestruck teenagers for their heedlessness, perhaps going so far as to subvert the very idea of “love at first sight,” but even I found director Rupert Goold’s Romeo and Juliet a bit harsh: still tragic but also deeply cynical, in a way that undermines the drama of the play. I enjoyed the production immensely, and the staging was spectacular, but his star-crossed lovers didn’t capture my imagination the way others have.

The production makes a point of creating a Romeo and Juliet who are, first and foremost, products of their environment. Theirs is a reckless, violent, volatile, coarsely sexual world, and they are reckless, violent, volatile, coarsely sexual people. That’s fine to a point, but it leads to a static, broad-brushed interpretation of the characters: a Romeo and Juliet who are, temperamentally, almost interchangeable and who begin and end the play the same way, as two obstinate, self-absorbed, self-destructive people among many.

That might be interesting from a philosophical point of view, but from a dramatic standpoint, it’s lackluster. Finding subtle ways to contrast Romeo and Juliet can give the play extra depth and color, and the suggestion that, for example, Romeo is deepened by his relationship with Juliet, that he doesn’t remain the fickle boy Friar Laurence sees—that’s part of what can elevate the play from melodrama to real tragedy. The persistent immaturity of Goold’s Romeo and Juliet—and their seeming lack of potential for change—stunts the play as well.

That all sounds rather dire, but although this Romeo and Juliet falls on the shallow side, it’s still pretty damn entertaining. Mariah Gale finds a puckish sense of humor in Juliet that I hadn’t seen before. She bowls over the stereotype of Little Miss Capulet as a demure, guileless innocent, creating instead an impish, passionate teenager who takes the lead right from the start in her relationship with Romeo. It’s not my favorite interpretation—I missed the initial dreaminess and the steely determination revealed when those dreams begin to dissipate—but it’s compelling nonetheless.

As for Romeo, Oscar Isaac’s performance at Shakespeare in the Park a few years ago might have ruined me for others. His genial, stoned, self-conscious Romeo so delighted me that I now tend to find all others a bit lacking. But holding Dyfan Dwyfor to what is essentially a personal preference for a drama-kid Romeo is unfair. Dwyfor’s interpretation is more traditional but still effective. Initially sullen, he lights up around Juliet. It reads as a crush, but it’s so damn earnest that you can’t help but grin.

For the most part, Goold keeps things moving on his dark, fiery stage—and I mean fiery literally. This Verona seems to have been constructed over Hell itself, with fights inevitably resulting in flames shooting out of the street grates. Even setting aside the pyrotechnics, those fights can be dismayingly physical. Romeo and Tybalt’s deadly confrontation, for example, is downright brutal—not a single spontaneous strike on Romeo’s part but a vicious, down-and-dirty brawl in which Romeo kills Tybalt very deliberately. There’s probably something admirable in the refusal to depict Romeo’s murder of Tybalt as something almost accidental, a moment of grief-induced insanity he immediately regrets, but it’s still very hard to watch.

The play is still beautiful to listen to, though: the Royal Shakespeare Company clearly knows how to handle Elizabethan text. The members of the cast speak the lines of Romeo and Juliet with both an actor’s sensitivity to the nuances of meaning and a poet’s appreciation for the nuances of the language itself. I might not have agreed with all the dramatic choices, but I reveled in the opportunity to hear those familiar cadences handled with the finesse of a great musician.

And some of the dramatic choices I actually appreciated a great deal. That uncomfortable battle between Romeo and Tybalt challenged me to think about Romeo in a different way, and the portrait of Juliet’s creepily dysfunctional relationship with her father, while not exactly new, is bracing and powerful. Best of all, Forbes Masson makes a remarkably complex Friar Laurence. Laurence is my favorite character, and Masson ably highlights the insight and compassion that make me love the good friar, but he also brings to the fore Laurence’s weaknesses: the way he too quickly sets aside his own good judgment, his cowardice in confronting the consequences of his involvement in the Capulet-Montague feud. This production doesn’t let Friar Laurence become either a paragon or a bumbler; he exists somewhere in the middle, like most of the other characters.

And finally, Goold’s toying with time period, which bemused me at first, eventually became one of the elements of the production I remember most fondly. For most of the play, the characters wear stylized period dress—all but Romeo and Juliet, who dress like modern teenagers, Romeo in a hoodie and Juliet in a short cotton dress and Converse sneakers. And then subtly, at the very end of the play, the periods reverse, with Romeo and Juliet dying in Elizabethan finery and their families and the Prince turning up in contemporary attire. It’s a gimmick but a good one, revealing Shakespeare’s tragedy as both timely and timeless, as lovely a paradox as there ever was.