Romeo and Juliet in the Park - Star-Cross'd and Soaking Wet

Having waited in line seven hours for tickets, the audience at the Public Theater's performance of Romeo and Juliet had proved their patience. Despite having sacrificed most of their Sunday, the crowd seemed nothing but pleased to be in Central Park's Delacorte Theater, about to enjoy the first production of this season's Shakespeare in the Park series. How different these restrained New Yorkers filling the seats were than the tempestuous performers on stage. 

A water-logged Verona

Directed by Michael Greif , this energized production of the world's most famous love story rushes energetically from scene to scene. From Mercutio's opening delivery of the "Two star-cross'd lovers…" speech, the characters infuse each sentence, actually each word, with fiery emotion.

Christopher Ewan Welch as Mercutio

Passion drives the romance here—not sentimentality. Ambrose, best known as Claire on HBO's Six Feet Under, brings out the rough-edged youthfulness of the 14-year-old Juliet, and her fire-red hair accents her smoldering emotions. She speaks her lines with a directness that may reveal her unvarnished youthfulness or an intelligence that is moving away from childish idealism.

However they are interpreted, her exchanges with Isaac's Romeo are electrifying. In the famous balcony scene, Romeo, in his quivering voice, rushes to his love, then retreats quickly, repeating this again before climbing up to Juliet for a fiery kiss. The staging and performances draw the audience in with every push and pull.

The famous balcony scene

The youth of Verona don't have very helpful role models. Juliet's Nurse, played with scenery-chomping energy by Camryn Manheim, is too excited by the gossip (and too eager to serve as a more fun alternative to Lady Capulet) to advise Juliet to take a few deep breaths before running off to marry Romeo. Austin Pendelton infuses his performance as Father Lawrence with an ecclesiastical authority that takes a while before the audience can see that he too is too caught up in the drama to be trusted.

Often productions of Romeo and Juliet excuse the actions of these "ancient" characters, glossing over their irresponsible behavior to focus on the two lovers. This production stands out by showing the audience their errors in judgment but somehow still making it difficult not to be carried along with them. Even in a play so well-known, Greif creates unpredictability.

Oscar Isaac as Romeo and Camryn Manheim as Juliet's Nurse

The extraordinary set also adds artistic flair to the show. Composed of a shallow pool with a wooden arch and rotating circular walkway, it gives the characters a lightness to their movements as they appear to walk on water and move about the stage without taking a step. It is profoundly effective, emphasizing the airy incautiousness of the characters. In the final tragic scenes, Romeo and Juliet lay soaking in the lake, literally pulled down by their water-logged clothing and the weight of the world bringing their idealism down to earth.

Michael Cristofer as Capulet, taking in the final tragedy

If only the young lovers had half the patience of their stoic audience at Sunday's performance, things may have turned out different.

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