WHAT WOULD WILLIE SAY? KC Rep’s production of well-worn tragedy revisits the bard’s own text

By Paul Horsley

Love is like a virus: It infects not just the lovers themselves but all those around them. Armed with this premise Kansas City Repertory Theatre artistic director Eric Rosen has begun building his daring new production of Romeo and Juliet, a co-production with UMKC Theatre that opens January 17th. Inspired by his recent travels through Italy and especially his visit to the so-called “Juliet’s Balcony” in Verona (where he said he had a “huge epiphany about what the play is about”), Eric wants to move away from the idea of “warring tribes” and turn the focus back to the lovers themselves. “To me Romeo and Juliet is about the profound enchantment of first love,” says Eric, now in his sixth season with the Rep, “as something that is both incredibly passionate and beautiful, and something that is terrifying and potentially disruptive.” All this is reflected in the physical production, he says, as created by Jack Magaw (scenic design), Victor En Yu Tan (lighting design) and a small army of costume, sound, musical, choreographic and swordfight artists. Thus after a straightforward beginning that is spare and even a bit drab, at the moment when Romeo and Juliet enter the masquerade “everything bursts into light and color and theatricality,” Eric says, “and it becomes a really fascinating world … until [spoiler alert!] the moment in which they die, at which point all of the magic and enchantment disappears.”

Actors are to check their presuppositions at the door for this show, Eric says, because his goal is to return to what Shakespeare wrote. And there’s very little in the text to suggest, for example, that the embattled families are from different cultural or ethnic backgrounds (black versus white, Confederacy versus Union, Puerto Rican versus whatever) as subsequent takes on the tale have suggested. “I don’t see that in the text. There’s very little detail as to why the Montagues and the Capulets hate each other. … It feels like Shakespeare left that vague, and that they hate each other for stupid reasons: that they’re much more alike than they are different.” Yet the hatred is inextricably linked to the young couple’s love. “They wouldn’t love each other so much if their parents didn’t hate each other so much.” For the bard, “it’s kind of a fusion, where the hate fuels the love, and the love fuels the passion of the hate.”

Eric Rosen 2

This Romeo is Eric’s first Shakespeare ever, partly because today’s theater culture rarely presents young or mid-career directors the chance to take on big shows such as this. (“One of the reasons I took the job here was so that I could do things like Death of a Salesman, Romeo and Cabaret, things I would never get to do elsewhere.”) For his love-couple Eric has chosen not Equity actors but two UMKC graduate students, Courtney Salvage and Jamie Dufault, “because they’re just spectacular.”

So where does one start in creating one of the most-performed plays in history? “We’re standing, of course, on the backs of hundreds of years of productions of this play,” Eric says. “So what’s making this vibrant and vital and alive for us is going back and letting the text tell us what to do.” As for making the language sound naturalistic, it’s easier than people think, he says. “In Shakespearean practice they spoke really fast, and they never stopped unless there was a period. The language takes care of itself if you pronounce it in the rhythm in which it was made, without affectation or stresses to make things ‘poetic.’ … When you follow the punctuation, almost anyone can sound good speaking Shakespeare.”

 

BELOW IS A TRANSCRIPT OF OUR CONVERSATION WITH ERIC

Paul: Have you directed Romeo before, or is this your first?

Eric: This is actually my first Shakespeare, completely.

Has that been because of a reticence?

Well, I’ve talked about this a lot, about the field itself. It’s a problem for emerging and mid-career directors, in that you can only direct Shakespeare at the college level or at the super high-end professional level, because it’s so expensive. Romeo is huge: There’s 17 people in the show and that’s probably five fewer than we need. At so it goes in any Shakespeare play. Usually as a young director you aren’t handed a Shakespeare text unless you’re doing it non-Equity with your friends. Young directors get handed new plays mostly, and before I came to Kansas City I had almost never directed a play that wasn’t in its first or second production. One of the reasons I took the job was so that I could do Death of a Salesman, so that I could do Romeo, or things like Cabaret that I would never get to do anywhere else. I had made a sort of list when I got here, and this was the year that we sort of knocked (Romeo) off the list.

In music, young conductors never get to conduct Mahler symphonies, for similar reasons. It’s always the big guys who get to, or it’s the artistic directors. It never goes to the young guest conductors. So you really have to have your own gig.

I’ve been working on some things on the national level to try and change that situation in public theaters: developing programs for early- to mid-career directors to get to tackle the masters. All of those Boomers who have been doing it for a long time — because when they were young, there weren’t so many people in the field — they’re going to be retiring soon, and you’re going to have a generation of directors who have never done the classics. So, on the kind of policy level I’m looking at: How do we revitalize the classics so that we train newer voices in the techniques? Because I’ve been working on this production for two years and I feel like I’m still learning something new every day.

To continue the music metaphor, conductors come to a piece like Beethoven’s Fifth and they they ask themselves, What do I have to say about this piece that hasn’t been said already? When you approach a play this familiar, do you wake up in the middle of the night and say, Ah, I know what I’ll do with Romeo! We’ll take a whole new road! Or is it, ultimately, a collaborative process from the very beginning?

That’s a great question. Definitely the concept for the production … is open to whatever the director wants to do. The inspiration has to come from the director. So my idea for this production was definitely inspired by last year’s Italian trip. During the summer we went tripping all over Italy: I think we drove like 2,000 miles in three weeks! And we stopped in Verona, and we were standing at that place which is called Juliet’s Balcony. It’s not really Juliet’s Balcony, of course (historically), but it’s been called that. And I had this really huge epiphany about what the play is about, and that kind of led to the design idea and how we’re approaching it. 

Can you tip your cards a little bit about that concept?

To me Romeo and Juliet is about the profound enchantment of first love, as something that is both incredibly passionate and beautiful and something that is terrifying and potentially disruptive. Mercutio compares that first love to an infection … a little virus that gets inside you, and it not only infects the lovers but it infects everyone around you, the world sort of goes crazy. …

So I made a production that starts in a very prosaic way, in the regular world, where there’s a first meeting between the Montagues and the Capulets as in the play. And it’s fairly spare and straightforward. And at the moment that Romeo and Juliet enter into the masked ball — in which they put on the costumes of their characters, actually, and meet — from that moment forth everything bursts into light and color and theatricality, and it becomes a really fascinating world — until the moment in which they die. At which point all of the magic and all of the enchantment disappears, and the adults are left kind of staring at the bodies. … Because when you look at it, once Romeo and Juliet meet every adult character starts doing crazy things. Capulet beats the crap out of Juliet, and the nurse makes this horrible set of decisions, and the friar makes really bad decisions. Everyone, to feed this love, makes terrible decisions. …

So that’s kind of what the production, for me, is about. When you make a decision like that, then other things start to fall away. Other directors might say, it’s about war, or it’s about the feud, or the family conflict, it’s about rich versus poor, or black versus white. And I tend to be really purist with it, that it really is about that whole problem of love as enchantment.

Courtney Salvage is Juliet

Courtney Salvage is Juliet

Of course so many versions of this story pit it as the story of attraction to “other.” Breaking out of the old order, perhaps, where your parents chose someone from your tribe and you married that person if everything worked out neatly. And now, this is sort of like a new order where opposites attract, but inadvisedly almost. … Is that sense of the attraction of “other” in your production at all?

I would say this in a different way. Because in the play many of the characters talk about love and hate being the same thing, and that love is the fusion of unlike things. The fact that the Montagues and the Capulets hate each other, and that Romeo and Juliet love each other, are linked. They wouldn’t love each other so much if their parents didn’t hate each other so much. The way that Shakespeare talks it about it is that it’s kind of a fusion, where the hate fuels the love, and the love fuels the passion of the hate. … And that to me is the paradox, again the idea of enchantment, the fusion of unlike things being locked in this kind of death dance because of impossible love.

You know when you think about it in contemporary terms, how many kids kill themselves, or try to kill themselves, over love? It’s not like a story that we don’t know. We only have to know about our own histories. As for my own first love, I didn’t eat for three weeks and when I thought that the love was dying, nothing’s ever hurt as much. When we were together, nothing felt better. And every song on the radio was written for me.

That’s what I’m trying to get out of the actors who are playing these parts, trying to get them in touch with who they were when they were 14 or 15 years old and falling in love for the first time. But it’s not wine and roses, it’s blood and angst and passion and horniness. And it is a kind of enchantment, and that’s what is moving to me about it.

This collaboration with UMKC creates an interesting situation, and I’m surprised — though maybe this is part of the project — that it’s students that are cast in the leads, rather than the professionals doing the leads and the students filling in the smaller roles. Was that a conscious choice?

Well it’s definitely a mix. Romeo and Juliet are graduate students (Courtney Salvage and Jamie Dufault), and to be totally honest I wouldn’t have done the play if I hadn’t had found them. I mean, these two kids are extraordinary. Last year we did workshops with the graduate students on the play and started to get to know who they were, and it was only when I began to get to know these two that I felt this coproduction could work … because they’re just spectacular. But you know we have adult actors playing Mercutio and the nurse and the friar and the Montagues … so it’s a healthy mix.

The Rep is very consciously — on the eve of our 50th anniversary — trying to go back to some of its founding principles. And I think this production probably best expresses what can happen when the Rep and the Theater Department really and truly collaborate, in a trusting and fulfilling collaborative ways. Something like this is a perfect marriage of who their students are and what we need in terms of energy and vitality on our stage. 

Jamie Dufault is Romeo

Jamie Dufault is Romeo

Working with the Shakespearean language can be tough, for anyone. What are the special challenges associated with that, especially with younger actors, in terms of getting them to speak it in a natural way?

We’re using a very natural approach to the language. In Shakespeare’s time — this is something I’ve learned in just the last couple of years — in Shakespearean practice they spoke really fast, and they never stopped unless there was a period. When you look at something like the Queen Mab speech, which is a page and a half long, there are five periods in that entire speech. And the rules are such that it doesn’t really go fast, but the language takes care of itself if you pronounce it in the rhythm that it was made — without affectation or stressing things for poetic value.

So there’s no elongation of souuuund so that it sounds like pohhhhh-etry. It’s remarkable: When you follow the punctuation, almost anyone can sound good speaking Shakespeare. … So it takes a lot of the pressure off. It only rhymes occasionally, and when it rhymes he meant it, and when it doesn’t it’s just talk. … One of the great things about doing Romeo and Juliet is that everyone knows the story. And in a way, that was sort of the case with Shakespeare’s audience, when you came in you sort of knew the story, and it was what he did with it that gave it that sauce.  

Well of course we know the story but then we also know all of the adumbrations, if you’ll pardon the term, that maybe interfere with the actual story. Is it okay that we’re informed by West Side Story and Bellini and God knows what all? Or do you wish to remove all that?

Yeah it is okay, although I do have a rule here that no one ever talks about other productions in the room. And that if anyone brings an assumption into the room — like Lady Capulet is like this, or Tybalt is like that — I say, go back to the text and show me where that evidence is. … We are building our characters from what’s on the page. For example Tybalt is always played as a brute, but Tybalt is described by Mercutio as being sort of prissy. The text tells us that Mercutio is more of a brawler, and Tybalt is more of a highly skilled fencing expert, and is more concerned with class and appearance. And he thinks that the Montagues are just scum because they’re not as educated and as cultured as he is. (Some productions) tell us that Lady Capulet is this sort of scheming monster. It’s not like that at all. I think the Capulets are good parents, they love Juliet … they’re not doing anything except what their society would have them do, which is to sell her off to the best suitor. They are actually really tender with her.

So we have to check at the door things that are, for us, not about the play. A lot of the actors have done these roles before, a lot of them have seen it on the stage, seen the movies, seen the adaptations, seen the New York production this year, etc.

Of course we’re standing on the backs of hundreds of years of productions of this play, so what’s making this vibrant and vital and alive is us going back to the text and letting the text tell us what to do.

I take it that also applies to centuries of feminist theory, and queer theory, and theories of Mercutio actually being in love with Romeo, and whatnot? Look for it in the text and if it’s not there, then toss it?

Yeah, and I think it’s fine to do that. If I wanted to do that production, then I’d do that production. And then I would look for the text to mean different things. … For my first Shakespeare I wanted to be as intellectually rigorous with what’s there, and trust that Shakespeare was smarter than me. There’s this thing that a lot of productions do where Lady Capulet and Tybalt are having sex, and that’s why she gets so upset when he’s dead. There’s not a word in there about that. I mean, if Shakespeare had wanted that, he would have written that, he would have loved that. … But that’s not there, so we don’t do it.

Merle Moores plays the Nurse

Merle Moores plays the Nurse

To some extent you had a choice of which Shakespeare play you could have done. Why Romeo, why not Hamlet, or Macbeth?

It was my decision. I’ve always wanted to do it. When I got this job I made a list of works I’d like to do and this was number three. I was fascinated with the story: It’s very clear, it’s very dark, it’s very sexy, it’s very violent, it’s very magical. To be totally honest I think it’s easier than those other plays. … It’s not about the psychological complexity of Romeo, it’s about the external forces working on the internal drama. It’s a lot more Greek than those other plays, it’s a lot more elemental, and it feels like a fairy tale because it was a fairy tale and therefore it has a kind of collective conscious pull in a way.

It’s not my favorite Shakespeare play but it’s one I wanted to direct.

Do you have some favorites?

I do have favorites. I really love Twelfth Night. Of course I love Hamlet. I’d be very afraid to do Hamlet, I don’t think I know enough yet to do it. I love The Tempest a lot. Actually All’s Well That Ends Well, too — It’s not one that people know well, but it’s beautiful and complicated and it’s about love. I like the Romances. I think Shakespeare understood things about the human heart better than just about anyone has: its contradictions and its complexities. So the Romances are especially moving to me. I love Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and I think Much Ado About Nothing is fantastic. The warring sex stories I like a lot.

You mentioned earlier the sort of light and colors breaking out as the lovers fall in love here. Can we expect for that to be reflected in the staging and lighting, going from darkness to light, etc.?

Oh yes. I won’t ruin them (by telling too much), but think some of the coolest theatrical tricks that I’ve come up with are in this production. I’m excited about it. There’s a whole other language with which to tell a story like this. I mean it’s a pretty traditional production: They wear old-timey clothes, and we’re attending to period detail. But we’re manipulating it a bit, so that as the story progresses the the design gets more and more bizarre and surreal. So that people won’t expect to come in and see Shakespeare with shotguns, or Shakespeare in the Civil War. It’s meant to be whatever Shakespeare imagined Verona was (a place where he never was).

So it starts out traditionally and then, when it turns weird, it’s still traditional. … The costume designers are fantastic, and this is stuff they almost never get to do. It’s a blast, the beading and all that … the choice of colors, the choice of fabrics. They’re all things that people would have worn then. It’s just that it goes from a cool, almost black-and-white palette to a kind of explosion of color at the party, and then bloodier and bloodier as the play becomes more violent.

You’ve gone to considerable lengths, it appears, for the fight scenes, hiring a top-flight coach-director and an assistant. Why are these so important?

Our sword fights are awesome. We’ve just spent five straight days working just on fights, we’re really immersed in what they’re for. You know, five days — and there are probably seven minutes of fighting in the entire play! But then, the world described is very violent. The Prince says, three times you’ve massacred people in the streets, and the next time I’m going to kill you. They’re living in a world where it’s not safe to walk through the streets without somebody taking you off and stabbing you.

Therefore Verona is kind of in gang war, and I think if you don’t really attend to those two big fights … that opposition, that hatred, that rage is not expressed. Shakespeare liked fights, and I think a little swashbuckling is actually fun. Graduate actors have been certified for combat, that’s part of the requirements of pretty much every program. You’ve got to know how to do it. It’s not something you can teach in a day. And you wouldn’t put a sword in someone’s hand who never had one before.

How dangerous is that? Because when I watch a really good swordfight it puts me on edge. I guess that’s the idea.

Yes, it is dangerous. But if the actors do what they’re supposed to do, it’s not dangerous. … Physical life on stage is risky, so we do everything we can to make it completely safe, and yet create the illusion of danger. Watching it is pretty scary, Oh gee, that’s a sword!

We had a sort of Romeo here this season with the Bellini Capulets and Montagues at the Lyric Opera — which is not really based on the Shakespeare — where really the point is that, in the end the romance is not really the central part of the story, that it’s really about bringing the families together. And at the end u think oh, so that’s what this story was all about.

I just don’t think it’s true for Romeo and Juliet. It might be true for the opera, which I had never seen before, and was completely new to. And that is one way to read it. … Look, Lear is about Lear and what happens to him, and Romeo and Juliet is about Romeo and Juliet and what happens to them. The family in the story is kind of an afterthought: At the very end, after all is said and done, they say, Gosh maybe we should end our feud. But he doesn’t’ really spend very much time on it.

I think the last line of the play, “Never has there been a tale of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo,” tells us everything we need to know. That’s what he was interested in.

Yeah well the guy had a theatrical sense, you’ve got to hand that to him.

Yeah, he liked a good story.

Do you remember your first Romeo as an observer?

Oh gosh yeah, for sure. I was 7 years old, and it was at the Asheville community theater’s Shakespeare in the Park in Asheville, North Carolina. And I remember specifically being terrified when Tybalt got killed, because I remember what the actor’s face looked like, and I was terrified. That, plus it was the first time I’d seen adults other than my parents kiss really passionately. … Sometimes I remember productions that I saw as a kid better than I remember things I saw last week. Yeah, my parents had very poor filters (laughs). My first Broadway musical, when I was 6, was A Chorus Line.

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Romeo and Juliet runs from January 17th through February 9th at the Spencer Theatre. Call 816-235-2700 or go to kcrep.org.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, email phorsley@sbcglobal.net or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501).