When the American Shakespeare Center returns to Smith Auditorium on Friday, October 14 to perform “Romeo and Juliet,” it will mark their fifth performance at Manhattan College. With this play, they have their work cut out for them from the very beginning.
“Shakespeare, never afraid of spoiler alerts, tells us what’s going to happen in the first fourteen lines, as if to challenge himself to make the audience care with the performance that follows,” Dr. Brian Chalk said. Chalk is a professor in the English department, a Shakespeare scholar, and the organizer of the ASC performances each year.
The performance falls every year at the beginning of Family Weekend, something Chalk says has been a welcome addition to the calendar.
“President O’Donnell has been a particularly enthusiastic and helpful supporter,” Chalk said. “He loves the idea of opening family weekend with an even that’s both entertaining and intellectually stimulating.”
The entertainment value is apparent to anyone who has seen the ASC perform on campus. Last year’s performance of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and the performance of “Much Ado About Nothing” the year before, had the audiences laughing throughout.
This year the ASC returns with a tragedy, the first since they performed “Othello” in 2013. Beyond the entertainment value, the performance brings a chance to learn.
“Along with ‘Hamlet,’ ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and a few others, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ occupies a unique and exalted place in popular culture” Chalk said.
While many people know the story of Romeo and Juliet, the story they have received is not necessarily the one that matches Shakespeare’s actual play. Chalk is teaching a major level class on Shakespeare this semester and “Romeo and Juliet” is on the syllabus.
“As with every Shakespeare play I teach, my goal is always to encourage students to encounter Romeo and Juliet on its own terms” Chalk said. “People tend to assume they know this play because of its popularity, but their received notions almost always distort and oversimplify the plot in a manner that flatters Romeo and underestimates Juliet.”
Caroline Chu, a senior English and communication major, says her view of the famous play has changed since taking the class.
“When I first read this play as a freshman in high school, I was told to read solely for plot, so you could say that I missed quite a bit in my initial reading” Chu said. “It was eye-opening to uncover the intricacies of each character.”
With this new perspective, Chu is excited to have the ASC return to campus this year.
“Given that the ASC blows my mind every year, I can only expect that the performance of Romeo and Juliet this year is going to phenomenal” she said. “I’m already forecasting lots of tears by the end of Act 5, and hopefully I’m not the only one wiping her eyes.”
Katie Jeffries, a senior English major who is also taking Chalk’s Shakespeare class this semester, thinks learning about the play has changed her view on it.
“In class, we’ve discussed how previous performances of Rome and Juliet manipulate the characterization of Romeo” she said. “Often times Romeo’s murdering of Paris is kept out of productions. Modern views want you to like the hero in the play, but I think Shakespeare wanted to show how flawed love can be.”
Jeffries is excited to see the play after gaining these new perspectives through her study.
“I’ll be interested to see how the [ASC] portrays Romeo and the complexities that his character invokes. More than anything, I want to see how the troupe [will] entrance the audience to care for Romeo and Juliet, knowing how their love story will end” she said.
Chalk thinks the ASC performance allows students to see that Shakespeare’s plays as more accessible.
“Every year the ASC perform on campus a student tells me that he or she appreciated how the troupe modernized Shakespeare’s language to make it more understandable” Chalk said. “I take great pleasure informing such students that the ASC doesn’t change a word. When performed properly, Shakespeare’s language can be just as accessible as it was to its original audience.”
“The ASC is always spectacular and really entertaining” Chu said. “There is just something awesome about being able to see a play staged before you, especially if you read the play in a class.”
But you don’t have to have read the play in class to enjoy the performance.
“The ASC’s performance style emphasizes audience interaction and engagement. Their visits remind students that the arts are intended for everybody,” Chalk said.