Perhaps director Michael Greif has an affection for mosquitoes. Or maybe he longs to have his attractive cast participate in a “wet muslin” contest. (Please!) He might be paying homage to nearby Turtle Pond. Whatever the motive, for his production of Romeo and Juliet at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, Greif has apparently relocated the action from Verona to Venice, setting the play in an inch-deep pool surrounded by a rather squeaky revolving wooden border. Throughout the play, the brave actors—many of whom mercifully sport anachronistic wellies—stomp and leap and shuffle through the puddle. Christopher Evan Welch’s Mercutio even attempts a shallow swim.
In interviews, Greif and his cast have murmured various explanations about the water’s purpose. It represents the play’s Mediterranean clime, or its seafaring language, or even a baptismal font. Lauren Ambrose, the play’s Juliet, has confessed that she’s nicknamed it “the Hypothermia Pool, the Hepatitis Pool, the West Nile Pool.” But with all the splashing about, you certainly wouldn’t mistake it for a reflecting pool—rendering this quixotic bit of scenery a rather perfect metaphor for Greif’s entertaining, but supremely unreflective, production. Rather than portray the central relationship as any great affair, Greif depicts it as, in Juliet’s words, “Too rash, too unadvis’d, too sudden, too like the lightning.” Though one prays lightning won’t strike such a wet set.
Oscar Isaac’s petulant Romeo and Ambrose’s winsome Juliet are not star-crossed soulmates, but instead a pair of cute kids with a profound sense of entitlement and poor impulse control. She’s callow, he’s fickle—very Generation Y. They meet at a party when neither’s entirely sober and wed before the next nightfall. Love at first sight’s a charming notion, but never has a marriage-license waiting period seemed such a sensible piece of legislation. If poison and “happy daggers” hadn’t intervened, they would have split up inside a month.
Possessing a noble profile and estimably curly locks, Isaac nevertheless fails to impress as a romantic hero. His devotion to the less attractive aspects of Romeo’s character—his recklessness, his egotism—proves so complete that it renders him unlikable. Ambrose fares better as his paramour. Though nearly 30 and newly a mother, onstage the actress appears significantly younger and exceedingly virginal. (You long to take her Juliet aside, advise, “Sweetheart, why not give this Paris guy a chance?” and then treat her to a butterscotch sundae.) Pale-skinned and beautifully proportioned, Ambrose cuts a luminous figure and projects a lovely naturalness. Whether giddy or self-serious, she never strains for effect. Better known for her film and television work, she does lack vocal prowess, but it’s a deficit the Delacorte’s amplification system ably remedies.
Lest we grow bored with the adolescent amours, Greif ensures there’s physical action aplenty. After a chorus speech spoken by Welch (if you were directing, you’d give him more lines too), the play proper begins with a knife fight and a food fight, as townswomen hurl carts of apples and oranges at the ruffians. Greif also includes lots of sword fighting, open flames, live music, and many a bawdy gesture courtesy of Welch and Camryn Manheim as Juliet’s nurse. Brian Tyree Henry, fresh from Yale Drama, menaces as Tybalt; Michael Cristofer carries on as Lord Capulet. Even the revolving wooden platform gets a frequent—if rather needless—workout.
Indeed, nearly everything in Greif’s production is moving, save the central tragedy. Greif doesn’t necessarily mishandle the dual suicide, but his take on the characters prevents it from having much of an impact. “Never was there a story of more woe”? Not really. At the lugubrious conclusion, eyes stayed dry, if the actors were not. And as the audience filed out of the ampitheater, few cries of “Ah, Romeo” or “Alas for Juliet!” sounded in the evening air. But more than one spectator could be heard to exclaim, “Those poor actors—they must be freezing!”