Star Crossed and Star Struck: “Romeo and Juliet” Performed at Manhattan College

by ROSE BRENNAN, Staff Writer

For over four hundred years, William Shakespeare’s tragic tale of “Romeo and Juliet” has been known as the quintessential tale of forbidden love.

On Friday, the Manhattan College community had the opportunity to attend a production of Shakespeare’s most famous work by the American Shakespeare Center in Smith Auditorium.

“Romeo and Juliet” is one of the three plays in the ASC’s current repertoire, along with “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “Our Town.”

Brian Chalk, Ph.D., is the head of the college’s Honors Enrichment Program, one of the organizations that sponsored the performance.  He emphasizes the importance of integrating the humanities into the mission of the college. “In general, I think the humanities is something that if you experience it, it’s more likely to have an effect on people,” he said.

Having the company perform at the college was always a plan of Chalk’s.  “I was devoted to the idea of having this acting troupe come here as soon as I got the job,” he said.

Despite being written centuries ago, the play still remains popular in the modern day.

The Manhattan College community enjoyed a performace of “Romeo and Juliet” by the American Shakespeare Center in Smith Auditorium last Friday evening. Rose Brennan/The Quadrangle

“There’s a reason we’ve been performing these plays for four hundred years straight. It’s because I don’t think a single playwright in the English language understands the human condition as well as Shakespeare did,” J.C. Long, the ASC actor who plays Lord Capulet, said. “Even though he was writing contemporaneously to the Elizabethan aesthetic, it’s still absolutely applies today. People are still very much the same. We still struggle with the same fears and we still have the same conflicts.”

Chalk further elaborated on why the ASC might have chosen “Romeo and Juliet.” “Along with ‘Hamlet’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ it’s the most consistent box office winner, and it really occupies a firm and unique place in popular culture,” Chalk said. “It’s a story that people find consistently compelling.”

This universality does not exclude college students from its appeal. In fact, there are themes that both Chalk and actor Kyle Powell believe will particularly resonate with young adults.

“Especially when it comes to young people, it’s a play about an older generation passing down a violent conflict to a younger generation, without any robust explanation, and the problems in the tragedy that this causes,” Chalk said. “Unfortunately, that remains universal.”

Powell, who plays Paris and Sampson, agreed. “What you see is a lot of young people dying for what’s right as the older people, who should know better, are trying to keep them apart, and I think that still resonates today, with every generation,” he said. “Parents still think they can own teenagers; teenagers still think that they know better than their parents.”

But the appeal to younger audiences does not solely lie in the violence punctuating the play. “It also has the most beautiful expressions and articulations of love anywhere, in any form of literature,” Chalk said. “There will be moments when people will just be smiling happily at the beauty of the language. Both of the elements are important and make the play timeless.”

The aforementioned universality also spreads across the student body, regardless of school or major. “You see majors from every school attending the performance and enjoying it,” Chalk said. “It’s leveling. It shows that, yeah, eventually your major is going to help you prepare for your vocation, but life is not a vocational exercise.”

The audience reveled in the ASC’s interpretation of the classic work.  But what they were likely unaware of was how much time and effort went into the staging of such a successful production, from first auditions to opening night.

The cast was finalized in November 2015, and rehearsals began in June 2016. The cast then spent one month learning each of the three plays in the repertoire.

Long provided some insight into the intensity of these rehearsals.  During the first few days, the cast runs the shows in what is known as a Renaissance run.

Before the Renaissance run even begins, intense preparation is required of all actors. “We’re required in our contracts to show up completely off book with all our lines memorized for all three shows in a rep that we start rehearsing,” Long said. After this preparation, the Renaissance run is underway.

“Our very first day there, we as the actors, without directors, without our manager, without any of the designers or the producers, we just get together as the cast and we decide how we want to perform the play,” Long said.  “And so the very next day, we do a full performance of the entire play with no rehearsal other than the ten hours we had the day before.”

“Then we take about three weeks of rehearsing the show, and then about a week of performing it, like getting previews and doing it in front of an audience,” Powell said.

The company is currently on their fifth week of touring the country following these strenuous rehearsals. But even while the show is running, the company needs to ensure that the production does not get sloppy. In order to do so, the cast has to do a minimum of 37 hours of stage combat rehearsals. There is also a mandatory one-hour stage combat call prior to all performances of the show.

In addition to the constant rehearsals, the company faces further challenges because no two places in which the shows are staged are identical. There are always adjustments that need to be made.

Powell, however, enjoys this aspect of touring. “I think it’s fun. It always makes me have to be on my toes,” he said. “I can’t just hop on the rollercoaster and ride the ride, I have to drive the bus.”

From the stage to the screen, “Romeo and Juliet” has been interpreted in countless ways. Yet, every interpretation brings something new and fresh to the timeless tale. To Chalk, however, nothing beats seeing a live production of Shakespeare’s work.

“Going to see a play on a Friday night right here on campus, for free, I think is a valuable experience for everyone,” he said.  He particularly enjoys the ASC’s commitment to authenticity. “The ASC always brings something unique in that they try to conform to Shakespeare’s staging conditions as much as they possibly can.”

But why should students go to see a live staging when they could just set up Netflix and watch Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes portray the same characters in the privacy of their own dorms?  To Chalk, it’s the simple yet important ingredient of audience interactivity.

“The clearest difference is the immediacy of it,” he said.  “It’s live, it’s yours and it’s transient. So Friday is our performance of ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”

Seeing a live performance of a play initiates a sense of intimacy that just is not present on the silver screen. “What happens belongs to us in a way that is unique, and it’s true of any theatrical performance,” Chalk said.

Powell in particular cherishes the immediate intimacy and interaction only available with a live audience. “With this company, the lights stay on and the audience is here, and we interact with you. Shakespeare never feels as alive to me when it’s not in this type of condition,” he said. “No one is ever on this stage talking to themselves. They’re either talking to you or they’re talking to another character. I think that’s the most rewarding thing as an actor, to be able to know that I am never in it alone.”

The emphasis on interactivity does not only delight the actors, but the audience as well. If their standing ovation following the performance was any indicator, it would be safe to assume the ASC will be returning to the college for several performances to come.