Romeo and Juliet Launches Shakespeare & Company's 32nd Season

The First of a Record 18 Productions

By: - May 24, 2009

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Romeo and Juliet
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jonathan Croy
Set Design by Ian P. Guzzone with Kiki Smith and Janet Kalas; Costumes, Govane Lohbauer; Lighting, Greg Solomon; Sound, Marc Scipione; Fight choreography, Jonathan Croy, Sound engineer, Michael Pfeiffer, Stage Manager, Angela Bayler. Production supported by Frances Martinson. Cast: Alyssa Hughlett (Juliet, Lady Montague), Benjamin Brinton (Romeo, Abraham), Daniel Kurtz (Tybalt, Paris, Prince), Kaitlin J. Henderson (Lady Capulet, Benvolio, Sister Joan), Kelley Johnston (Bathasar, Peter, Montague), Paul D'Agostino (Friar Lawrence, Nurse, Gregory), Sean Kazarian (Mercutio, Capulet, Sampson).
Shakespeare & Company
May 21 through June 7

Since January the production of Romeo and Juliet, with seven actors performing some 14 roles, has been performed in 70 schools and theatres throughout New England, New York and New Jersey. It is a part of the Shakespeare & Company Youth Program that has been directed by Jonathan Croy for over 20 years. The vital touring program is a mandate of Shakespeare & Company, founded 32 years ago by Tina Packer, to train young actors as well as to bring Shakespeare's work to 25,000 students and teachers each year.

Now that the new Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre is enjoying its first full season, in addition to the larger Founder's Theatre on the Lenox campus, the decision was made to bring back the touring production of Romeo and Juliet, after 77 performances on the road, to open an intense season of 18 productions for Shakespeare & Company.

There was a sold out audience on Saturday night, including many board members and VIPs, for a gala celebration. Before the curtain, well there isn't one actually, Tina Packer greeted the audience and congratulated the young actors. She returned at the end of the evening for a bit of banter with Nicholas B. Puma, Jr. the Managing Director. They are often an amusing pair providing both stand up comedy as well as an ardent pitch for support in the capital campaign which now stands at $8.2 million toward a goal of $10 million. Once that happens S&Co will received an additional grant of $800,000 from the Kresge Foundation.

With typically infectious energy Packer proclaimed that the remarkable schedule of 18 productions is being presented despite a reduction of some $450,000 from last year's budget. It remains to be seen how the company will accomplish so much more with less. One example of how to do that is to bring back the touring company of Romeo and Juliet to launch the season with an additional schedule of performances between May 21 and June 7. After that the young actors will head home for much deserved rest.

During the champagne reception in the lobby following the performance Packer introduced Elayne P. Bernstein for whom the new theatre is named. She fought back tears as she related how the performance of Romeo and Juliet was the most moving she had ever seen. She also spoke strongly of the important mission of the company to educate the next generation of actors and to bring this important work to schools and rural communities. She pointed out that Packer founded what has proved to be far more than just a theatre company.

As luck would have it Packer and Puma were seated in the row behind us. During intermission I got to chat with them. I asked Packer when she planned to retire? "Never' was her answer although she is stepping down from the day to day operation this season. "Not until I raise $20 million" Well she is closing in on at least half of that goal even though the company, like everyone else, is suffering through the dismal economy that has entailed cutbacks and hiring freezes.

We commented on the fact that just seven actors are performing 14 roles as well as the gender bending in which boys play girls and girls play boys. That brought a smile to her as she related that "This is exactly how Shakespeare did it when he took the company on the road; with just seven actors, all boys, playing all the parts. We realized that right at the beginning and started the touring company some 28 years ago."

Where do they get all that energy I asked Puma? He related how, after a nine hour tech rehearsal, the young actors burst into his office and invited him out for drinks. "Come on Uncle Nicky" he recalled them pleading with him. "I went along with my credit card" he said. "They had no money so I bought a couple of rounds and tried to stay awake."

It is surely that incredible energy which is most remarkable about this high spirited and even manic production. They chase each other around the stage in madcap fight scenes with a lot of physical humor in the acting. You are exhausted keeping up with them. This is hardly the kind of nuanced treatment of the spoken word that one is used to in more classic productions. But this approach has an accent on youth and its sanguine approach may well have been most effective in bringing the Bard to audiences of school children. The energy level and  charisma would undoubtedly make the work more accessible to young audiences.

The fast and furious staging also helped one to ignore the lack of sets or elaborate production values. This is a show that was designed for endless one nighters adapted often to less than ideal settings. Think high school gym, for example. As Packer often points out it is the acting and that phenomenal language which is the focus of the approach of S&Co. Don't expect the frills particularly in a season of 18 productions with short money.

In viewing the work of these very young actors one speculates about who will emerge to go on to have significant careers in the theatre. But that training of being on the road and appearing in some 80 plus performances is just invaluable. The norm of school and college productions is to have just a few performances. This approach offers the opportunity to develop skills and work on nuances. So this was a very polished performance by the time it arrived back home to launch the Lenox season. All that time on the road was abundantly evident in the passionate and feeling delivery of the lines as well as the perfect timing of the furious pace of the production. The actors truly inhabited the inflexions of their complex multiple roles.

This was richly enforced, for example, in a scene when the Nurse, Paul D'Agostino, morphed from the over the top broad comedy of the bawdy woman and servant of Juliet, to emerge as the Friar who involves her in the fatal plot to simulate death. Wow. Not only did he change character without leaving the stage but effectively conveyed an entirely different feeling and mood.

Another stunning moment in an entirely absorbing evening occurred when Romeo (Benjamin Brinton) is alone with the young Juliet (Alyssa Huglett). She is supposed to be just at the age of puberty and in fact Hughlett is a bit older than that. But as a rather fragile looking young woman she more than adequately conveyed the character's vulnerability, passion and innocence. The famous balcony scene was rendered with great delicacy and poignancy. It led nicely into the tragic demise of the "star cross'd" lovers.

Most notably Sean Kazarian brought ferocious swagger and anger into the role of the hot headed Mercutio. He also morphed impressively into the autocratic father, Capulet, who orders his daughter to marry Paris against her wishes. This is a young actor to keep an eye on.

This is a great beginning to what promises to be an ambitious and successful season for Shakespeare & Company.