It’s Romeo and Juliet as Aqua-lovers, But Lauren Ambrose Achieves Greatness

Anything goes with Shakespeare in the Park. But at what point, I wonder, did the director and designer of the Public Theater’s Romeo and Juliet cry out, “Eureka! We’ve got it!”

Whereupon the distinguished director, Michael Greif (of Rent), must have telephoned the Public Theater’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, with the exciting news.

“Hullo, Michael,” said Mr. Eustis exuberantly into his cell phone. “Peace, love, brotherhood to all men, make love not war and an end to global famine—what’s new, pussycat?”

“We have the concept,” Mr. Greif announced gravely.

“I thought you already had one,” replied Mr. Eustis. “Romeo and Juliet on roller skates. Fantastic!”

“We decided the roller skates would clash with Xanadu, the musical,” the director explained patiently. “But we’ve come up with something even better—Romeo and Juliet on water!

“Nobody will ever believe it!” Mr. Eustis cried. “It’s genius! It’s better than that. It’s pure genius! But tell me, brother,” he asked, concerned about the escalating budget, “is the water deep?”

(My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.)

“It’s shallow,” said Mr. Greif.

“Shallow is good,” said the relieved Mr. Eustis. “I love it! We’ll be walking on water!”

“And think what we can do with the fight scenes,” added the director.

“Can’t wait,” said Mr. Eustis with his customary enthusiasm, as he made the clenched-fist sign of solidarity.

And so was born the world’s first Waterworld interpretation of the greatest love story. What fun! Even by the standards of the notorious conceptual lunacies of the Public’s Shakespeare in the Park productions that we’ve grown so fond of over the years, this one takes the strudel. A waterlogged Romeo and Juliet might have made marginal sense if the play took place in Venice. But why are the good people of fair Verona sloshing around a lake in wellies?

The new production is designed by Mark Wendland, and it was Mr. Wendland who conjured up the incomprehensible chair concept of the Mark Wing-Davey Henry V in the Park. The Delacorte stage was crowded with row upon row of empty gilt chairs, as if the play were a bar mitzvah waiting to happen.

Now, when we think of Henry V and the rights and wrongs of expansionist wars, as a general rule do we think of chairs? Mr. Wendland does.

It comes as no surprise that no one I’ve asked can explain the point of a Romeo and Juliet on water, either.

Watery design concepts aren’t new; they’re merely back in fashion. Sarah Ruhl’s twee version of Eurydice has an elevator that rains. (Not to quibble, but her River Styx is a dribble.) The current revival of that old potboiler 110 in the Shade has an ecstatic downpour in the final moments. Mary Zimmerman’s memorable 2001 production of Metamophorsis is the sine qua non of the aquatic form: It took place in and around a large—and deep—pool. Ms. Zimmerman’s imaginative staging turned Ovid’s primal stories into the liquid significance of a baptism. The pool was beautiful.

Verona is a pretty place, at least before the tour buses arrive. Standing in the main square, it’s almost obligatory to imagine those warring dynasties, the Capulets and Montagues, and Shakespeare’s eternal tale of intoxicated young lovers. (“My only love sprung from my only hate!”) How, then, to re-invent and breathe new life and meaning into the Bard’s most popular play?

Alas, the vague, watery concept in the Park is no solution. The piddling puddle is lifeless, signifying nothing. It isn’t even central to the action. With its cold industrial bridge—in which Juliet’s balcony is found—the set is a dull, decorative gimmick that distracts us from the language and the play.

Even so, Mr. Greif has pulled off within his dubious concept a passionate version of Romeo and Juliet, and I’m glad to report that Lauren Ambrose achieves an acting miracle with her wonderful and touching Juliet. Best known for her Claire in the HBO drama Six Feet Under, Ms. Ambrose has little stage experience. But you would never know it from her accomplished, riveting performance.

She doesn’t play the famous 14-year-old demurely, least of all is she self-consciously girlish. I was unprepared for her intelligent Juliet, though only a mature woman—Ms. Ambrose is approaching 30—can play a Juliet who becomes a woman overnight. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy of love in which the impetuous lovers meet, marry and die within five days! The play hurtles toward its inevitable suicidal conclusion, and Ms. Ambrose seizes the lightning from the start.

She’s relaxed and assured in the musicality of the verse—a stage natural blessedly unafraid of Shakespeare. She takes us enchantingly from the giddy promise of love at first sight to the tragedy of romantic love’s fateful outcome and its wound. “More light and light, more dark and dark our woes” is Romeo’s lament. But Ms. Ambrose’s Juliet anticipates the darkness even as she reels with love. She convinces us of what we’ve long suspected: that Juliet instinctively knows more than Romeo will ever know. Her “you kiss by the book” to her ardent lover is amusingly, exactly right; her balcony scenes are a swooning delight; her torment and fragility at Romeo’s banishment frighteningly real.

Oscar Isaac’s modern Romeo—“fortune’s fool”—has his moments, but he acts, let alone kisses, too predictably by the romantic book for my taste. He’s stuck in puppy love. The unstoppable, crude Mercutio of that fine actor Christopher Evan Welch is a pleasure, and he takes the Queen Mab speech well, if at the mad gallop of a man possessed. Michael Cristofer’s incredulous Capulet disowning his willful daughter is exceptional, too. But, as usual with Shakespeare in the Park, the rest is mostly a mixed bunch playing it broad and loud, like Camryn Manheim’s mugging Nurse milking cheap laughs from the gallery. The costumes by Emilio Sosa are neutrally, sometimes drably, modern, and sometimes not. It’s difficult to tell the Capulets and the Montagues apart in the confusing ball scene. Flamenco dancing seems odd in Verona.

But so does all the water. It rained like hell with half an hour to go at the gala performance I attended. The celebs were dashing unceremoniously for the exits just as Juliet was about to pretend to kill herself in the potion speech. (“Romeo, I come! This do I drink to thee …. ”) The tropical downpour wouldn’t stop, and I’m afraid the conclusion was a washout. But it didn’t really matter. Lauren Ambrose’s Juliet had touched greatness, and everyone knows that the two star-crossed lovers drown in the end.

It’s Romeo and Juliet as Aqua-lovers, But Lauren Ambrose Achieves Greatness