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Stage

R+J: the remix

This year's Shakespeare in the Park is a musicless Romeo and Juliet that mixes tradition and 2003 attitude. Director Andy Goldberg wants to lure back teens who loved last year's hip-hop Bomb-itty of Errors.

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 10, 2003


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[Times photos: Cherie Diez]
Ryan Tresser and Charlotte Northeast are the doomed lovers in American Stage’s Romeo and Juliet.

Star-crossed lovers will meet under the stars at Demens Landing, for this year's American Stage Shakespeare in the Park production is Romeo and Juliet. For the first time in more than a decade, American Stage is doing a straight dramatic production rather than a musical adaptation -- straight, but not straitlaced, as this is a show the director hopes will draw younger theatergoers.

The idea stemmed from last year's edition, The Bomb-itty of Errors, a hip-hop treatment of The Comedy of Errors that was a remarkable hit.

"I came down for the closing weekend last year, and it was like Woodstock out there," said Andy Goldberg, the New York-based director of Bomb-itty who has returned to stage Romeo and Juliet.

"It was exciting to see teenagers so excited about Shakespeare. I wanted to do another production that would excite teenagers, just without the hip-hop. That was sort of my goal, and Romeo and Juliet seemed like the best vehicle for that."

Bomb-itty will be a tough act to follow. After St. Petersburg, the production went on to be a hit at the Chicago Shakespeare Festival, then to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it was named best ensemble production. On May 7, the show, with the same five-member cast that performed here, opens in London's West End.

"It's kind of amazing. St. Pete to the West End. It's just a couple of stops," said Goldberg, who leaves for London after Romeo and Juliet opens this weekend.

Goldberg uses a music term in describing his approach to Romeo and Juliet.

"I have been thinking of the production as Romeo and Juliet Remixed because I guess that's what I feel like I do as a director," he said. "I take something old, a 400-year-old text, and I have to find a new way to present it to a contemporary audience that both honors the old, the tradition and language that it comes from, but that combines elements of my own 2003 sensibility. Conceptually, that's what I feel like I'm doing as a director."

However, the director is quick to say that he is not merely doing Shakespeare in modern dress.

"I wanted a contemporary element, but I am also not a big fan of just modern-dress Shakespeare. I often think that deflates Shakespeare, makes it pedestrian," Goldberg said. "You start wondering about things like, 'Why doesn't he just call her on his cell phone?' Also it seems odd when they're speaking Elizabethan English."

Romeo and Juliet may be Shakespeare's most adapted play. It has been turned into a Prokofiev ballet, West Side Story and Gounod's opera. In 1996, Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge) made an influential movie, William Shakespeare's Romeo+ Juliet, set in the Miami Beach-like "Verona Beach" and edited like a music video, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

Goldberg and cast members almost make a point of distancing themselves from the Luhrmann movie.

"I didn't particularly enjoy the Baz Luhrmann film. I didn't like the acting," said Ryan Tresser, who plays Romeo. Instead, he draws inspiration from an earlier Romeo and Juliet, the 1968 film directed by Franco Zeffirelli, starring Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey.
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STAGE: Ryan Tresser’s Romeo, back, is joined in the cast by, from left, Matthew Lunsford (Tybalt), Che Ayende (Mercutio) and Ryan McCarthy (Benvolio) in American Stage’s Romeo and Juliet.

"I liked the Zeffirelli one quite a lot. I first saw it in high school, in English class, where they made you watch it. Honestly, that has stamped my concept of the play."

Tresser, a San Francisco-area native, recently completed the acting program at New York University. Charlotte Northeast, playing Juliet, is a Canadian living in Sarasota, where she understudied Debra Funkhouser's Catherine in Proof at Florida Studio Theatre.

At 23 and 24, respectively, Tresser and Northeast are playing younger characters. Romeo is thought to be about 18, and Juliet is 14.

"There's an old 14 about her," Northeast said. "She says things that as a 24 year old I'd never conceive of saying. She's so advanced. But at the same time, I think she has to be 14 in order to commit to what she's doing."

Northeast has played Juliet before, in a New Jersey production, as well as other Shakespearean roles.

"I think she is probably the best-written female role for Shakespeare," she said. "It's like he invested all his women into that one role. Not even Viola and Rosalind are as well written. Of the two, Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is the cool head of the relationship; she tempers Romeo down."

Romeo is impulsive. He kisses Juliet right after meeting her.

"He's a dreamer. Romeo believes in dreams," Tresser said. "He's very sweet and very young. One of the things I've been striving for is that Romeo is a very presentable, modern guy, so that people can relate to him."

Tresser was "defiantly anti-Shakespeare" until a few years ago.

"I always had a problem with the plot device of a girl dressing up as a guy or twins separated at birth and nobody really knowing the better," he said. "The good thing about Romeo and Juliet is you don't really have to suspend your disbelief very much. There are no gods coming down, nobody's cross-dressing or separated at birth. It's pretty straightforward. If any play reaches out to young people, this would be the best bet to do it."

Though the Bomb-itty script only loosely resembled Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet will be performed virtually intact.

"I've probably cut a few hundred lines," Goldberg said. "There's a scene after Juliet dies where some musicians and secondary characters make really bad puns. That was the only scene I cut entirely. I'm sure everybody else on the planet cuts that scene. Otherwise, I just do some internal cuts, some trims here and there. It's almost entirely there."

Last week, the director wasn't sure what the running time would be, but he estimated it at more than 21/2 hours. He hoped that wouldn't be too much for an audience of wine-sipping picnickers and restless teenagers.

"There's not a wasted minute," he said. "There is something exciting going on in every moment of the play. The play is written so that the momentum just increases and become relentless: the missed connections, the missed opportunities, the narrow escapes.

"It's a play that has a natural rhythm and a natural build. It starts with a bang, there's a big fight, and then once Romeo and Juliet meet, it's just an emotional roller coaster. Part of the tragedy is the pace at which events unfold. I'm hoping that people will be sucked into the story."

The Montague-Capulet feud at the heart of Romeo and Juliet has given rise to many a postmodern interpretation. As the family of Juliet, the Capulets are often seen as nouveau riche, and Romeo's family, the Montagues, are old money. Racial or ethnic readings are common, but Goldberg resisted such concepts in developing his production.

"Everybody asked if I was going to do them as Jews and Palestinians," he said. "I must have heard that eight times. I think that's an interesting thing to explore, but I was more interested in exploring how the Montagues and Capulets are really the same, part of a culture of violence, not about any particular difference between them."

The mix of lyrical young love and violence in Romeo and Juliet can be jarring.

"I didn't want the violence to be romantic in any way," Goldberg said. "Or if it did look romantic, then I hoped the effect would be thrilling and attractive at first and then you come to realize there's nothing attractive about violence."

He's not quite sure how it will play out for an audience that has been watching the Iraq war on TV.

"We've been planning this for a year, so this is not a production in specific response to war, but it is in response to violence in our culture," Goldberg said. "I'm hoping the play ends on a note of ambiguity, perhaps an opportunity for change."

* * *

PREVIEW: Romeo and Juliet opens Friday and runs through May 11 at Demens Landing, St. Petersburg. Show time is 8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Blanket tickets range from $9 to $20. Reserved chairs are $22. High school and college students with ID can purchase general admission tickets for $5 on day of the show. Box office opens at 5:45 p.m. Call (727) 823-7529 or visit www.americanstage.org.

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