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Actors are the light in Not-So-Royal Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’

| Friday, November 15, 2019

Diane Park | The Observer

The cast of “Romeo and Juliet” circles up pre-show as Advisor Scott Jackson gives them a piece of advice. As he looks around the circle of nervous faces, Jackson reassures: “If you’re comfortable, if you don’t have nerves, you’re doing something wrong. [Acting] is not a comfortable profession.” The actors nod, and their anxiety seems to harden into something stronger: determination.

The actors retreat backstage, the lights in the theatre dim and the play begins.

When I asked director Ellis Sargeant — a senior entranced by Shakespeare — why he chose to direct “Romeo and Juliet” over the multitude of other Shakespeare plays available to him, he responded that it is so well known that it is often dismissed by serious Shakespeare-lovers.

“Nobody doesn’t know something about ‘R&J,’” he says, “The names mean love story … it’s in the cultural consciousness.”

Part of Sargeant’s motivation for choosing this particular play was to combat the audience’s negative perception of the famous lovers.

“If you read in the news that five high schoolers at the same school all either murdered each other or committed suicide, you would think it’s a tragedy,” he explains. “You wouldn’t judge them for being ‘dumb.’”

This production does an admirable job of driving this point home by reframing the lovers in a contemporary context; Juliet (sophomore Nandini Sadagopan) and Romeo (sophomore Aryan Gupta) feel more like desperately smitten high schoolers than the oversexed preteens of Zeffirelli’s famous film version or full-blown adults of many professional stage productions. They have enough maturity for us to take their love for each other seriously, but enough naivete that we understand their inability to deal with their family circumstances independently. The famous “balcony scene” comes alive to a modern audience under Sadagopan’s vibrant and strikingly contemporary elation and Gupta’s innocent lovesickness. Sadagopan’s delivery of the soliloquy following her discovery of Romeo’s banishment is particularly moving. She gives Juliet a certain descent into madness, more akin to Lady Macbeth than Shirley Temple.

The standout performances of this production are without a doubt senior Mary Elsa Henrichs’ entrancing Mercutio and senior Louise “Scout” Gregory’s Benvolio. Henrichs and Gregory sparkle together; whether roaming the streets, fighting in the square or drunkenly summoning Romeo they grip the audience with their chemistry and their obvious joy to simply be onstage. Henrichs and Gregory’s physical embodiment of their characters and understanding of the text are unmatched among the cast. Mercutio’s famous “Queen Mab” speech through Henrichs’ nuance captivates the audience and hints at the darkness in the play early on. Mercutio’s untimely death is tragic more for the loss of Henrich’s presence onstage than the character himself.

Sophomore Jenna Rame (The Nurse), senior Zachary Spitzer (Friar Laurence) and senior Nicholas Taylor (Lord Capulet) also give engaging supporting performances throughout the play, more expertly flipping between comic and tragic moments than even the production’s leads.

The strong acting in this production is accompanied by a number of striking visual moments. Without giving too much away, the most compelling moments include the appearance of the wedding bed, its later transformation into a burial bier and a knife fight lit only by the glow of an electric lantern.

Where this production falls short is its technological ability. Beholden by no fault of their own to the limitations of the Washington Hall Lab theatre, the production unfortunately fails to take full advantage of the black box space. Where Sargeant has had the ambition to embrace the literal darkness of the play (much of the action taking place at night or in dark spaces), it often resulted in lost moments and an awkward lack of ability to see the face of the actor speaking. Though the staging and the placement of the audience were obviously intended to draw the spectators into the piece rather than let them sit passively, the extremely sparse space and sometimes weak technical elements were often more distracting than advantageous.

When I wondered at the quick pace of the intermissionless piece, Sargeant responds “Half the text is gone,” giving me the answer to my question. The cut works narratively; none of the story gets lost or tangled in the considerably shorter text. The fast-paced cut, while likely attractive to Shakespearean newcomers, will not be particularly challenging to a college audience. If you are already familiar with Shakespeare’s great romantic tragedy, this production will feel more like the Sparknotes than a full rendition. But for the larger Notre Dame audience, my suspicion is that the shorter length will make the piece more accessible. With this production, NSR has clearly chosen to refine the necessities rather than tackle the admittedly monstrous original text.

In the play’s closing moments, the Prince (senior Patrick Harig) urges the Capulets and Montagues to “go now and have more talks of these sad things,” which, running at a quick ninety-minutes, this production certainly encourages its audience to do. Sargeant puts the play in a contemporary context: “When you’re 13 you’re not supposed to have the answer. And all the people who do are so wrapped up in the feud … in their own fear, in covering up their own mistakes … that they let the kids die.” “Romeo and Juliet,” when presented in our contemporary era, is a plea to audience members to put aside their conflict and seek peace. Maybe a love story — no matter how tragic — is something we could all use right now.

Not-So-Royal Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet runs November 14th – 16th in the Washington Hall Lab Theatre. Tickets are on sale at the door and at the LaFortune Box Office.

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