Smiles of a Summer Night

Photo: Michael Daniel/Courtesy of the Public Theater

The Public Theater’s new staging of Romeo and Juliet is performed alfresco, which is Italian for “the way God intended.” On clear nights at the Delacorte, Shakespeare’s tale of “star-cross’d lovers” unfolds with the help of actual stars—the moon, too. “O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,” Juliet calls to her beau from her balcony, “That monthly changes in her circled orb, / Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.” And there it hangs above his head, just as she’s described it: half-full and slipping unreliably offstage left.

The literal-minded aren’t the only ones who will enjoy the timely stargazing. As at so many Shakespeare in the Park productions, the atmospherics—all those trees, all that sky—are woven so deeply into the experience of seeing the play that you can’t disentangle the two. Less bucolic than A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which will carry us to the woods outside Athens later this summer, Romeo and Juliet benefits in subtler ways from its airing-out. Director Michael Greif gives you a fresh sense of the play’s untamed passions, the tempestuous way that love chases hate and vice versa. Though a little refining wouldn’t hurt, there’s really no better place than a stage in the middle of the woods for telling a story about two hormonal, lovesick teenagers, keepers of the beastliest urges of all.

No matter how many times I see this play, its dark nooks and crannies catch me off-guard: More than just about any other in the canon, it confounds our popular conception of it. The name “Romeo” long ago became synonymous with “young lothario”—there’s even a young rapper kicking around with his stage name. In fact, Shakespeare’s doomed lover can be a peevish adolescent who, when he doesn’t get his way, falls to the ground “with his own tears made drunk.” His child bride, all of 14, ricochets between girlhood and womanhood: now a demure lover, now a lady of poise. Such are the weird complexities of character that keep young actors awake at night.

Though neither of the leads here completely meets that challenge, neither comes away embarrassed, either. Oscar Isaac, lithe and magnetic, shows the same charisma that let him outshine the field in Two Gentlemen of Verona in 2005. The rough-and-tumble scenes in which Romeo kills Tybalt and Paris in single combat don’t fit him especially well, in part because his longish dark hair suggests he shares a stylist with Entourage’s Vincent Chase. But as a romancer of Juliet, he’s superb. Accompanied by the unlikely but evocative sound of a flamenco guitar—composer Michael Friedman gives the show a light, insinuating score, like a Chekhov play—he pursues her, wins her, and, in well-spoken raptures, tells us all about it.

In her flame-red ponytail and simple white smock, meanwhile, the luminous Lauren Ambrose seems one part ingenue and one part wood nymph—or is it water nymph? Though Juliet is sometimes silhouetted against the trees behind the stage, she spends at least as much time in or just above the 70-foot-wide pool that dominates Mark Wendland’s set. (No, I don’t understand it either, but when ringed by torches, it adds a certain elemental flavor, and anyway does no harm.) At the end of the balcony scene, Ambrose gazes at Isaac across a gap between the two halves of an arched bridge that spans the pool. “I have forgot why I did call thee back,” she says with such an innocently girlish tone, such a lack of affect, that I thought it might be Ambrose herself who had forgotten what to say next.

Trouble is, sometimes you need the affect. Ambrose can’t carry off Juliet’s great “wherefore art thou Romeo” speech, getting lost in some wobbly verse-speaking and a flurry of quick head-shakes. Later, when Juliet delivers her speech about whether to take the sleeping potion, Ambrose does a remarkable job of shedding her girlishness and maturing before our eyes, only to stumble over the ghost sighting near the end. Far more than her Hennie in Awake and Sing! last year, her Juliet shows genuine talent. Still she runs into the limits you’d expect from an actress who, success on Six Feet Under notwithstanding, remains a virtual stage novice leaping directly into one of the trickiest young female roles in all of drama.

Camryn Manheim also comes in from Hollywood, but for her, this is a return trip. Back on the New York stage for the first time since her pre-TV days, she makes the Nurse bawdy and outsize, more akin to Maria in Twelfth Night than the creaky old servant most actresses portray. Fortunately, loud physical comedy turns out to be a pretty good way to play the Nurse, at least in a 1,900-seat open-air theater. Even better, when she hits the difficult patches, like discovering the apparently dead Juliet, Manheim’s old training comes in handy, giving what could be a lot of thankless screaming some real weight and feeling. Still, the best performance in the show—yet again—comes from Christopher Evan Welch. His Mercutio isn’t lusty, hot-blooded, or adventurous, but sullen, choleric, and cynical. No whimsical wordplay in his treatment of the Queen Mab speech: It pitches him into rage and something close to madness, and still he gets laughs. Credit Welch for leaving no doubt as to why Shakespeare had to kill off Mercutio early in the play—otherwise his tragedy might not end up seeming very tragic.

As in one of Greif’s prior collaborations with Wendland and Friedman, the director keeps the effects—the giant pool, spinning adjustable bridge, and the rest—from getting in the actors’ way. In fact, his problem isn’t the scenery; it’s the way that so much of the cast blends into it. Beyond the principals (and Michael Cristofer, harrowing as Juliet’s badass father), the company doesn’t make much of an impression, doesn’t fill in the edges of Shakespeare’s picture of Verona life.

But here, the production gets one last boost from the elements—on the night I saw it, anyway. By the time Juliet says that “a faint cold fear thrills through my veins,” a nighttime chill had descended on Central Park. The climax in the tomb seemed sepulchral partly because the place really was colder and darker than it had been during the street brawls and love scenes around dusk. Out there in the trees, in the dark, it’s a lot easier to spot the streak of existential despair that runs through this play. “See what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love,” says the horrified Prince when the bodies are found. By that point, we’ve seen five people die onstage, as laws and civilized behavior crumble before family hatred and youthful passion. The plunge into chaos gains its own extra something from being staged amid the elements. All the death may seem unpleasant and unsettling, but it’s hard to call it unnatural. Those animal impulses are not so far behind us as we like to think.

Smiles of a Summer Night