A few minutes before the show began, I noticed a detail on stage that made me laugh. Parked before what will come to represent a Verona storefront are two fruit carts, one filled with apples, the other with oranges; together, they underscore one of the play’s central themes, reminding us of that familiar and very pertinent idiom about irreconcilable differences. Like the performance to come, this set piece is clever and different.
Throughout the production—which overshoots the Chorus’ stated “two hours passage” by a whole hour—the stage remains very expressive, though the aforementioned fruit prove to be not only the subtlest bit, but also the most relevant to the action of the play. Breaking from a long tradition of producing Shakespeare with minimal set dressing, the Public Theater’s Romeo and Juliet is played on and in a huge wooden circle. Within the circle is a shallow pool of water, and hanging over that pool is a massive, rotating, shape-shifting wrought iron archway/staircase. The immense, transformable set-piece allows for an incredible variety of stage setups that never fail to come off beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that it at times threatens to overshadow the actual play, and one wonders why it was necessary.
While a pool of water in Romeo and Juliet may bring the Cardigans’ immortal earworm “Lovefool” to Shakespeare enthusiasts’ minds, in this production it somehow works. If the director, Michael Grief, was trying to say something with the casual use of water onstage, it doesn’t come across. It does, however, look amazing, and always manages to somehow feel right no matter the scene, whether in the love scenes or the chaotic fight scenes, which are the first fights I’ve seen in a production of this play that truly capture the sense of the messy street brawls Prince Escalus always seems to be complaining about. The water is used effectively and creatively, creating an ethereal, engaging aesthetic.
It is no doubt daunting to live up to such a set, but the cast is equally impressive. Actors comfortable enough with Shakespeare’s language to really act with it as if it was as effortless for them as the words of any contemporary playwright’s are a rare commodity, but the Public’s production is chock full of them. The celebrity cast members, Camryn Manheim and Lauren Ambrose, play their roles extremely well. Ambrose’s Juliet is filled with all the naïveté and childish enthusiasm one would expect from a girl not yet fourteen. Ambrose is unafraid of making Juliet a realistic adolescent, with all the highs and lows that entails, rather than a picture of virtue, and it works beautifully. Playing alongside her, Manheim’s Nurse is mother and best friend all at once, traveling beautifully from one extreme to another without any contradictions, first tender and motherly, then bawdy, loud and hilarious; first high spirited and care free, now in over her head. Oscar Isaac’s Romeo is at his best when filled with urgency, be it from fear, excitement, love, or some combination of them all. The scenes between he and Ambrose are always charming. Christopher Evan Welch picks up Isaac’s slack in many of the less intense scenes as Romeo’s cynical jester of a friend Mercutio. In fact, he not only captures Mercutio’s mercurial nature, but shows his true talent when he’s able to transition to a heart-wrenching death scene, as well. Austin Pendleton’s numerous line flubs often seemed to serve his portrayal of Friar Laurence as a man constantly at his wit’s end, trying to hold all the pieces together as the world falls apart around him.
It’s a credit to the director that this production manages to be fresh and engaging, despite being perhaps Shakespeare’s most well known play, and it shows that the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park is strongly meeting its goals of bringing Shakespeare’s works to a wide audience. The tickets are difficult to come by—they’re free, but they’re highly sought after—but the trouble is worth it. Though not without its flaws, this production of Romeo and Juliet is a treat for everyone, from the most stuffy scholar to those who’ve never before seen a Shakespeare performed.