Making comedy out of tragedy

The School of Drama calls it “one of the most revived, most translated to film, and most imitated plays in history.” Throughout the English-speaking world, it is hailed as Shakespeare’s most celebrated tragedy.

Romeo and Juliet is perhaps the most recognizable play in the western world, noted for the strong emotions between its love-struck teenage characters and the perils that ensue following their secret marriage. The strength of the lovers’ connection is both highly desirable and upsetting in the eyes of audience members. Director Laura Konsin expounded on the play’s appeal: “I think [it’s] because of the beauty of the language, the dynamic and memorable characters, the hilarity of the comedy, and the depth and suspense of the tragedy.”

Detailing the powerful emotional nature of the work, Konsin stressed the play’s extreme highs and perilous lows. “Something we’re taking very seriously in our production is the fact that both Romeo and Juliet have the gift of prophecy. So the audience will see how circumstances quickly spin out of control in this very fast-paced, passionate, and supernatural world,” she explained. “Romeo and Juliet ... meet, fall in love, and kill themselves within the span of four days.”

The School of Drama’s rendition of Romeo and Juliet takes traditional versions a step further. As Konsin explained, the focus on the supernatural is unique, as is the interplay between the actors and the audience. She emphasized the fact that Shakespeare “wrote very gritty, passionate, and even gory or fantastical plays.” Following in this idea, the set was designed so that there are no physical divisions between the stage and the audience, as scene director April Bartlett described.

Bartlett, a third-year graduate student studying set design, noted the significance of the fluidity of movement in the show. Calling the actors the “Shakespearean players” in the work, she designed the set so that “the orientation of the space” is conducive to travel across the set “in a very Shakespearean way.”

According to Bartlett, the lack of physical divisions on stage allows for a sense of shared space between the actors and the audience in the theater, rather than placing a divider between them. Such an intimate environment pulls the audience deeper into Romeo and Juliet. “The audience is in the story,” she said. “They’re not just watching the story.”

Senior drama students Jordan Dean and Kristolyn Lloyd, cast, respectively, as Romeo and Juliet, have been trained to work in such a way that the notion of the play as a comedy will be amply translated. Dean and Lloyd will emphasize comedic moments and treat them as important scenes. According to Bartlett, Act I is the play’s funniest act.

For Konsin, this has been a goal from the beginning. While the play has its moments of tragedy, for which it is most famous, Konsin wants to emphasize the humorous scenes as well.

Konsin has actually been studying the text of Romeo and Juliet for the past seven years, since she was an undergraduate student. Noting the director’s intimate understanding of the work, Bartlett said, “it was something [Konsin] was born to do.”

In fact, Konsin’s close relationship with the play led her to create such a large vision for the show that it had to be scaled back. Instead of having a costume designer, Bartlett explained, the director, set designer, and others working on the show came together to create the actors’ clothing from their everyday materials. It was a “collaboration to create characters” from all those involved, she said, and provided a “good opportunity for the characters themselves to derive the clothing from the story.” Konsin, however, makes it clear that she drew her vision from the text, rather than superimposing an idea of her own on the classic work.

“Our production is contemporary, but encompasses the tangible actor/audience relationship that was very true of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater,” she wrote in an e-mail. “And the production has a very vibrant energy which is very true to the extreme and passionate world of the play.”

Romeo and Juliet is playing in the Helen Wayne Rauh Studio Theater Wednesday through Saturday.