If, when playing Romeo in Michael Greif's new Central Park staging of the Bard's Romeo and Juliet, actor Oscar Isaac feels like he's swimming upstream, there's a very good reason.
Scenic designer Mark Wendland's set features a vast quantity of water, through which the actors slog every night. Adding this element to the usual air and earth (no fire, thank God) to be found at the Delacorte Theatre's outdoor, free Shakespeare has made the new production the toughest assignment young Isaac has faced to date. One of those past jobs was another Delacorte gig, Kathleen Marshall's revival of Two Gentlemen of Verona, the 1971 John Guare-Mel Shapiro-Galt MacDermot musical adaptation of the Shakespeare play. The show introduced New York audiences to the Guatemala-born, Juilliard-trained Isaac, who played the scheming Proteus. The actor took time between Epsom-salt baths to talk to Playbill.com about the world's most famous fictional lovers.
Playbill.com: How are you doing?
Oscar Isaac: I'm a little under the weather. I don't know if you've had the chance to see the show, but it all takes place under water, and although it's beautiful, it's not the best for the health. I'm trying to rest a lot.
Playbill.com: How does the staging with water work?
OI: Well, it's about an inch to two inches of water and there's a revolve around it. We're just constantly splashing through it. The tomb scene happens in the water, and the fight [with Mercutio and Tybalt]. It's quite striking. We're kind of grappling with it. It was [director] Michael Grief and [set designer] Mark Wendland's idea. It's great. I love it, but it's an Everest to climb. Playbill.com: What is the concept behind the use of water?
OI: I think it's a lot of things. One, it can give that Mediterranean feel. There are a lot of nautical references in the play. And it has a baptismal aspect. All that plays into it.
Playbill.com: Is this the biggest physical challenge you've faced as an actor?
OI: Without a doubt! Without a doubt! I'm just constantly bruised and cut up. Every night, it's a bath in Epsom salt. I don't know if it's just because I'm getting older or what. It just takes it out of me. I'm trying to suck it up. It's vigorous. In my mind, it's closing the book on my youth in a way. Not to say that I'm an old man, but in two hours I basically get to relive the entirety of my first 25 years.
Playbill.com: I imagine the story would bring those years back to mind. Though I doubt you ever had a relationship as dire as Romeo and Juliet's.
OI: I definitely felt that dire at the time. When she did break up with me, I thought I would die. I literally thought I would cease to exist. Had I been a little more rash and not thought things through, maybe I would have ended up the same way [as Romeo].
Playbill.com: How did you get the part?
OI: I know Michael Greif. I did a play with him before called Beauty of the Father at MTC. I came in for him and [Public Theater artistic director] Oskar Eustis and Oskar knew me from Two Gentlemen of Verona. That's how it came it about.
Playbill.com: You're becoming a regular in Central Park, aren't you?
OI: Yeah. That's great. And I'm back in Verona.
Playbill.com: Were there any lessons you learned in Two Gentleman on how to act in the Delacorte that have helped you this time around?
OI: I thought so. But when I came back in, I had to reorient myself again. It's a crazy space and our set is incredibly different. That's one of the magical things about the Delacorte. It can be transformed so utterly. It's a challenge.
Playbill.com: How is it acting opposite Lauren Ambrose?
OI: She's fantastic. I had never met her before. She is without a doubt one of the most amazing people I've ever worked with. She's incredibly open. And I tell her. I tell her she's my savior. What's amazing is the scenes that I'm not in with her, I feel uncomfortable. And I think Romeo feels that to a certain extent. He's always trying to get back into a scene with Juliet. I feel that way. I'm hungry to get back and deal with her. I feel very connected and I think we're kind of like-minded.