‘Romeo and Juliet’ lends new meaning to ‘family feud’

Tackling Shakespeare is an oft-replicated staple of college theater. However, for theater major and director Jess McLeod ’02, her production of “Romeo and Juliet” proved an all-consuming senior thesis, devouring a year with project planning and fine-tuning. The result: an unorthodox production of a 400-year-old script, set to a Bjork soundtrack and unfolding on a sparse main set.

The stage was minimally decorated with twin benches placed symmetrically across from each other over a platform painted with a mandala design, with tan and brown draperies hanging over the back wall. The complementary balance of the set and costuming – with Capulets bedecked in scarlet and Montagues in green – matched the equilibrium of the script, in which every eye of one family is paid for with an eye from the other.

Much of the main action is choreographed or performed over the surreal ambient reconstructions inherent in Bjork’s music. Frequently, the music’s success became contingent on the pace and timing of the acting; occasionally, the lyrics sung by the artist’s distinctive voice detracted from the dialogue. Such a process of incorporating a soundtrack is easier in film, where post-production editing allows the director total control over syncing action with sound; in theater, the responsibility of tempo resides with the acting and direction, which in this production was, on the whole, accomplished.

The opening scene, in which McLeod establishes her unique interpretation for the basis of the Montague-Capulet feud, depicts Lord Montague (Dean Carvalho ’04) and Lady Capulet (Eliza Segell ’04) locked in an explicit embrace before being ripped apart to arranged, unwanted marriages. The chaos is carefully orchestrated: the actors, eyes menacingly locked, circle each other while walking the painted lines of the central mandala. The structure of the movement and later, of loaded looks between Juliet’s mother and Romeo’s father, places the emphasis more on the history and less so on the fated outcome. The star-crossed fate seems to be a mixture of genetics and unhappy coincidences, as Carvalho and Segell share as much smoldering chemistry in the opening scene as their on-stage progeny do in the entirety of the second act.

The AMT DownStage lends itself well to acting beyond the confines of the stage. The audience is manipulated through the force of the acting, often graphically shunted into their space, traditionally considered sacred and protected from invasion. However, the action in “Romeo and Juliet” bursts from the stage and is conducted in, around and above the audience. During the intermission, those seated in the center section of the theater complained of neck cramps resulting from turning around in their seats to view the action, and those in the back grumbled a complete inability in observing such key moments as the balcony scene. However, this situation was improved in the second act, during a scene where the consummation of the marriage takes place in the area above the center section, when spotlights threw the geometry of the action in shadow against the front of the theater. In addition to being kinder on the necks of the audience, the lighting magnified the intimacy of the scene by casting literally larger-than-life shadows.

In their performances, Romeo (Peter Van Steemburg ’03) and Juliet (Emily Simons ’04) employed a mutual innocence and seeming dismissal of the feud their parents have engaged for them. Their naivete, coupled with matching baby faces, heightened the tragedy of their inevitable destiny. The principal actors shared a mixed chemistry, tempered by a quaint adolescent shyness at first and later seasoned with intense desire. Simons’ sugary voice and flowing costumes perfectly suited the virtue of girlhood, while Van Steemburg’s bawdy quips in the presence of the physical, lusty and quick-tempered Mercutio (Andrew Marks ’05) and hesitant, good-hearted Benvolio (Foster Cronin ’03) illustrated a pheromone-driven puppy in love with beautifully feigned immaturity and irrationality.

The Capulet household was marked by consistently high-quality acting and innovative interpretations of the characters by their actors. The part of Lord Capulet transformed Alex Lees ’03 into a stern patriarch, bent by age and inflexible in temperament regarding his daughter. His cruel berating of Juliet in the scene preceding her resolve to take decisive action in her destiny was flawlessly delivered. It inspired a smattering of applause at its conclusion, which served to rouse the audience from empathetic cowering. Segell played Juliet’s mother with icy bitterness, hungry for Montague blood as the result of years in a loveless marriage to the wrong man. The reputation preceding Tybalt (Israel Mirsky ’03) as a ruthless, cat-like warrior seemed half-unwarranted, as the character was played with both a catechumen’s conscience and a hunter’s agility. Emily Glenn ’03 portrayed the Nurse with unusual awareness of her charge’s yearnings and unaffected camaraderie. She became a welcome and devoted co-conspirator who eventually, but flinchingly, failed Juliet’s trust; excepting Romeo, the Nurse seemed Juliet’s only mourner.

Contributing to the effect of balance in the play’s delivery, the character of the lovers’ chief spiritual advisor was split between Mauricio Najarro ’05 and Abigail Nessen ’05 as Brother and Sister Lawrence. The character’s stoic, sagacious composure and heartfelt desire to do right was excellently communicated by both actors, even emphasized by the equal division in lines and often diametrically-opposed blocking.

A few particular artistic touches distracted from the overall composition of the play. Rosaline (Charlotte Delany ’05) was given a more central role than Shakespeare had written; with a perpetually creased brow, she stands as a lingering witness in the background in several scenes, spying on the actions of certain characters, oddly implying an unrequited longing for Romeo which is never explored. This unconventional inclusion, particularly an interpretative dance performed during the sonnet of the lovers’ first kiss, diverted attention from the main action. Her centrality to the plot introduced a questionable nuance of ambiguity and cocked more than one eyebrow in the audience.

Audience reactions ran the gamut. A waitlist of twenty people each night attempting to acquire tickets testified to the appeal of the play; however, several rows of emptied seats following the 15-minute intermission called into question the power of the play’s invasive, interactive feel. The use of staging was described as “innovative and personal to the DownStage space,” “stretching” and “challenging to the viewer” – presumably a goal of the direction – but also “impractical for the audience to have to rely on action in places where it was uncomfortable to view it.” Additionally, the message of the script is not one that the audience necessarily wants to empathize with so completely; it is possible that those who elected to leave midway were not inclined to be drawn into such a dark, hopeless world of suicidal love.

Many students expressed happiness that the theater community has been sponsoring more conventional, accessible plays, such as “Romeo and Juliet” and last week’s Cap & Bells production of “The Fantasticks.” The success of these shows, both of which sold out all performances even before going on stage, can be viewed as testimony to traditional scripts produced with high-risk direction as well as a critique of the popularity of avant-garde theater. McLeod’s direction was lauded by audience members as “creative” and “risky, even with a really traditional play,” though criticized as “taking itself too seriously” and “much too densely symbolic.”

“Romeo and Juliet” was produced by Williamstheatre and ran three evening shows and one matinee from March 7-9.