Romeo and Juliet cross paths and purposes with Hamlet in Friedrich Schiller’s sprawling Don Carlos, a delicious melodrama-cum-history(ish)-play that puts a pair of ill-fated lovers and a restless prince at the heart of a Spanish power struggle in the era of the Inquisition. As one might imagine, the opportunities for overacting are many.

Happily, the cast of Michael Kahn’s staging for the Shakespeare Theatre sidesteps most of them, though a careful examination of Ming Cho Lee’s spare and monumental set would probably turn up a lingering dental impression or two courtesy of Andrew Long. The rangy actor plays the Marquis of Posa, intriguer in the politics of the Spanish-dominated Netherlands and freethinking champion of a philosophy that rubs the age’s Establishment distinctly raw; in a generally stirring performance, he edges once or twice across the line that divides passion from pork. Mostly, though, Kahn’s production meets Schiller’s seething romanticism with severe restraint; strikingly elegant in its black-on-gray design, peppered with flashes of wry humor and livened with a scattering of colorful performances in supporting roles, it neatly avoids the overheated feel you might fear from a reading of the plot synopsis.

Posa, it transpires early on, is the boyhood companion of the title character—who, by the way, is Spain’s crown prince, son of the aging autocrat Philip II and a university-bred humanist of the tenderest sort. Committed to both Posa and Posa’s vision of a new age of free thought and political franchise, estranged from his father, and nursing a passion for the stepmother who was once pledged to be his own bride, Carlos is drawn irresistibly to the conflict over the Netherlands—and into a series of tangled court intrigues he doesn’t ever fully understand. He is the confused and conflicted antithesis Schiller poses against Philip’s rigid, harshly reasoned orthodoxy; his political instincts clouded by the turbulence in his heart, he is temperament to pair with Posa’s rationalism, the fire that flashes under the cool elegance of Schiller’s argument, a human face for a dramaturgical discourse about ideals.

Robert Sella, who’ll be remembered locally for his wan, neurotic Orin Mannon in Kahn’s Mourning Becomes Electra, makes Carlos tragic if not quite heroic; the portrait he paints is of a man too hapless for heroism, too unwise and unskilled in the realpolitik of his time to have a chance of making the difference heroism requires. But it is a compelling portrait nonetheless: Lithe and pale against Robert Perdziola’s somber black satins and velvets, Sella has a haunted look about his eyes and a way of infusing Schiller’s lines with an impetuosity that verges on hysteria. The actor’s finely drawn features and expressive hands contribute much, too, to a convincingly moody turn, one that holds its own amid a crowd of admirable performances.

Chief among that crowd, fittingly enough, is Ted van Griethuysen’s magisterial turn as Philip II. Initially austere and imposing as granite, momentarily humanized by Posa’s eloquent rhetoric and his own suspicions about the virtue of his much younger wife, this Philip is a relic—but a relic as enduringly monumental as the massive monastery-cum-tomb he’s building for himself at El Escorial. Van Griethuysen, having negotiated Lear last season, dispatches Philip effortlessly, seeming to inhabit rather than to portray him; the man he creates is a creature of duty, a church- and tradition-bound monarch who has encased what’s left of his heart in the hard shell of power that his intellect, along with the exigencies of his time and the training of an intriguer’s court, have compelled him to build.

Long’s Posa is Philip’s near-equal in craft, a curious breed of cavalier who can resist neither the machinations of politics nor the noble cause of the Netherlanders, whose former freedoms have been crushed under the totalitarian excesses of Philip’s rule and the predations of his Inquisition. Posa’s elaborate plotting is the dramatic underpinning for most of the play’s drama; if Schiller makes it difficult to follow, the intensity of Long’s performance and the energy of Kahn’s direction conspire to make it as avidly watchable as a Hollywood political thriller. Long’s signal accomplishment—and it is no mean one—is his mastery of the play’s great scene, an extended interview in which Philip and Posa cross rhetorical swords, each challenging the other to define the rights and responsibilities that come with the sovereign’s place. It is the crux of Schiller’s arguments, the distillation of his youthful thoughts about the conflict between idealism and political expediency, and it is a punishing stretch of dialogue; Long handles both text and stagecraft with aplomb, confidently riding the rhythms of the scene, building the conversation to the thin edge of confrontation but never daring to step across that fatal line. Even with van Griethuysen looming on the other side of Philip’s desk, his presence as intense in his listening as that of most actors in their speaking, Long maintains absolute control of a scene in which his character must be seen nearly to lose it. It’s remarkable work.

There are fine contributions as well from Floyd King, his comic gifts under tight wraps for the role of Philip’s intrigue-prone confessor, from Naomi Jacobson as the queen’s tart chaperon, and from Ralph Cosham, who cloaks a pit bull’s snarl in silken manners as the Duke of Alba, Philip’s enforcer in the Netherlands and the chief schemer among the courtiers in Madrid. Elizabeth Long makes a stunning Princess Eboli, though her conflicted feelings over her part in Alba’s plots don’t have quite the resonance one might hope for; Enid Graham, in the central role of Carlos’ beloved Elizabeth, seems likewise slightly hollow under the shell of her beauty and the surface of her polished acting.

But then underplaying a character’s emotions may have seemed, to both women, like the right approach in a story that unfolds in the shadow of that heavily symbolic crucifix that dominates palace chamber and chapel alike. If that particular bit of set dressing seems like a deliberate anomaly in Kahn’s otherwise streamlined vision, he may have realized that stylistic restraint can only go so far toward making Don Carlos feel like an intimate drama. The Shakespeare Theatre’s production is long on both style and substance, but it may be there’s no way to thoroughly personalize a story that posits its heroes as sacrifices on idealism’s altar. CP