Theater Reviews

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Delacorte Theatre, New York
Through July 8

As one of the Bard of Avon's most popular tragedies, "Romeo and Juliet" has been interpreted in incarnations as eclectic as Franco Zeffirelli's reverential 1968 film, Baz Luhrmann's 1996 modern-day update, musical variations like "West Side Story" or the gay-themed off-Broadway production "R J."

Now, the ever-offbeat Shakespeare in the Park has gone one better and come up with what might be the most unique version yet, though purists might think it's -- quite literally -- all wet.

Here's why: One big wading pool envelops most of the wooden turntable set, accompanied only by a movable steel bridge traversing it. And virtually every member of the cast must either splash through the water, cross sabers in it, fall into it or, in one case, submerge one's head in it.

Clearly, the result could have been gimmicky. But under the astute direction of Michael Greif ("Grey Gardens," "Rent"), the water serves as a first-rate conductor of passion, heroics, hatred and all the elements long associated with the venerable classic.

It's hard to picture, but the seemingly bare-bones set lends itself to everything from Juliet's balcony to the streets of Verona to a vermin-infested tomb. Of course, Central Park's environs are a perfect complement, never more so than when Romeo references "yonder blessed moon" and actually points at the real thing.

Greif also keeps the action fast-paced, with lots going on at any given time. For example, as the Capulets and Montagues brainstorm revenge-based plans, servants are laboriously picking up cartfuls of oranges scattered across the set from a brawl 10 minutes earlier. And during any of the thrillingly choreographed sword fights, it's never just about steel vs. steel; it's a full-fledged, stage-wide donnybrook. The result is a visually rich tapestry.

Of course, there are the usual Shakespeare in the Park trademarks: an assortment of costumes that inexplicably range between centuries; colorblind casting; such anachronisms as a cigarette-smoking nurse or a flamenco-flavored party; and a bit more comedy -- some of it particularly bawdy -- than Shakespeare surely had in mind.

But perhaps as a testament to the words, the story of those two dewy-eyed teens and their doomed ardor proves as powerful and moving as ever, especially in the post-intermission hour, when the drama rapidly escalates. As tales of star-crossed lovers and the senselessness of grudge wars go, the verbiage might be familiar, but it still resonates.

Of course, the cast deserves considerable applause, not only for bringing the words to life, but making their waterlogged efforts seem natural.

First and foremost, Lauren Ambrose is an exquisite Juliet. The actress best known as the snarky Claire Fisher from "Six Feet Under" leaves every trace of her indelible HBO character behind as she presents a heroine whose innocence is suddenly in combat with overwhelming emotions. It's a luminous performance, consistently heartfelt.

As the object of her affection, Oscar Isaac as Romeo gradually comes into his own, proving far more effective than his last Shakespeare in the Park venture from 2005, the wobbly "Two Gentlemen of Verona." Although dressed like an East Village slacker, his line readings bring a gravitas to the role that's spot-on, making Romeo's confusion over lust and loyalty utterly credible.

Camryn Manheim also impresses as the bigger-than-life nurse to Juliet, mixing a sense of the ribald with raw compassion. Clearly, she's meant to provide comic relief, as is Christopher Evan Welch as Romeo's ever-jocular pal, Mercutio. Welch, however, sometimes goes a bit overboard with the shenanigans and mugging.

Austin Pendleton's Friar Laurence proves more of a happy medium, knowing just when to rein himself in. He appears to be setting an example for the rest of the ensemble, most of whom walk the line between showiness and restraint with admirable aplomb. Among those, Michael Cristofer stands out as Juliet's unusually fierce father.

With such packaging, this water-powered "Romeo and Juliet" won't leave a dry eye in the house. As such, it's one of the most dazzling Shakespeares in the Park on record.

ROMEO AND JULIET
Presented by the Public Theatre
Credits:
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Michael Greif
Scenic designer: Mark Wendland
Costume designer: Emilio Sosa
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
Fight director: Rick Sordolet
Composer: Michael Friedman
Cast:
Juliet: Lauren Ambrose
Romeo: Oscar Isaac
Friar Laurence: Austin Pendleton
Nurse: Camryn Manheim
Mercutio: Christopher Evan Welch
Tybalt: Brian Tyree Henry
Paris: Dan Colman
Prince Escalus: Timothy D. Stickney
Benvolio: Owiso Odera
Friar John: Orville Mendoza
Lord Montague: George Bartenieff
Lady Montague: Saidah Arrika Ekulona
Lord Capulet: Michael Cristofer
Lady Capulet: Opal Alladin
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