The Romeo and Juliet Project culminates in a production of Shakespeare’s classic

The Romeo and Juliet Project culminates in a production of Shakespeare’s classic

by Tracey O’Shaughnessy

Love is a battlefield. At least that proved the case in the hands of theater director Barbra Berlovitz, whose staging of Romeo and Juliet at Fairfield in April was the culminating event in the University’s yearlong thematic exploration of Shakespeare’s classic play of young love gone horribly wrong.

The production at the Lawrence A. Wein Experimental Theatre – the black box inside the Regina A. Quick Center – was the heart of Fairfield’s “R&J Project,” a program undertaken by the University to explore the play from a range of perspectives, using the scholarship of a number of academic departments.

In effect, the University took the occasion of the production and used the play as an “area of focus,” to think across disciplines – about love, the family, the Renaissance, music, religious life in England in Shakespeare’s day, even about poisons and medicine.

And so throughout the spring semester – as the play was being developed for performance on April 20-28 by the Department of Visual and Performing Arts – other academic departments got into the act, including a performance by the Fairfield University Orchestra of selections from West Side Story; exhibits of books and memorabilia about the play; and lectures from University scholars on the play’s historical context.

The project began with a grant from the College of Arts and Sciences Board of Advisors extended to the Department of Visual and Performing Arts. The grant allowed the theater program to fund a guest artist residency on campus – the first in the history of the University – to director Barbra Berlovitz and her sister, costume designer Sonya Berlovitz. Both come from the celebrated Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which originated in France but had its home in Minneapolis until 2008. The pair spent three months preparing Theatre Fairfield for the production.

Dr. Martha Lomonaco, director of the Theatre Program, said the faculty chose Berlovitz to direct because of her experience updating classical theater for contemporary audiences.

“Whenever you revive a play, you always have to say, “Why am I doing this play now, to this audience,” said Dr. Lomonaco, who also served as producer. “Berlovitz’s interpretation of this play is that it’s not a love story. It’s about violence. There are no reasons we’re given why these families hate each other’s guts and have for a long time. It’s a deep-seated hatred that everybody feels and nobody understands.”

Barbra Berlovitz conceived of the Capulets and the Montagues as clans that are alternately conservative and modern, in part to underline what she sees as today’s friction between traditionalists and modernists.

“There seems to be a very strong conflict between a world that is ‘modern’ and part of the world that has embraced its tradition in a very familial way, wanting to live their lives (in the same traditional) way for hundreds of thousands of years,” she said.

Those tensions play out particularly in the Middle East, she observed, but also in the “red” state versus “blue” state dynamic in the United States.

“I have really augmented the idea that the Capulets are very strict and conservative and that the Montagues are potentially more free-thinking,” she explained.

That was made particularly clear in the role of Juliet, a 14-year-old girl who is only allowed out of the house with an elder male.

“In the play, Juliet has no friends,” said Berlovitz. “Romeo has plenty of friends. Juliet has none. If you look at what her father says to her, he’s basically calling her a harlot if she doesn’t do what he wants her to do.”

“I really am trying to point out the violence in the text,” said Berlovitz. “I’m making sure that it is clearly physical and emphasizing through the language that there’s a lot of animosity on the stage.”

Toward that end, the production called on Dr. David L. Chandler, a freelance fight choreographer, to train actors in the art of stage conflict. It is Dr. Chandler who gave meat to Shakespeare’s fuzzy-but-critical stage direction: “They fight.”

“What I try to do is have things in this play escalate,” said Dr. Chandler. “There are no weapons in the first scene. It’s more like a riot. It’s like kids in a gang fight. It’s all hand-to-hand stuff – but it’s stopped by a pistol.”

The disparities between the families are even made clear in the family’s respective fighting styles, said Chandler. The Montagues would carry baton-like sticks, while the Capulets fought with knives.

“Romeo is all passion,” Dr. Chandler continued. “When he falls in love with Juliet, his brains go away – this is the other side of his passion. When Tybalt makes a move to get Romeo, Romeo just explodes after him. He breaks his neck.”

“This is difficult stuff,” Dr. Lomonaco said. “It’s challenging. I really want to see audiences engage with this play and experience it as something new, and then they think, ‘Oh my God. This is Shakespeare and I actually liked it.’ It should be a totally engaging, absolutely mesmerizing experience that resonates with you.”

Dr. Richard Regan of the Department of English and the University’s resident Shakespeare expert, compared the University’s R&J Project to a smaller version of the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Big Read” program.

Fairfield delved deeply into the play off the stage as well. Lectures and presentations included a look at women in Shakespeare, a lecture called “The Meddling Monk: the Role of the Friar in Romeo and Juliet” delivered by the Rev. Richard Ryscavage, S.J., Director for the Center for Faith and Publice Life, and a historic look of the city of Verona by Dr. Victor Deupi, a professor of art history.

In April, Drs. Amanda Harper-Leatherman and John Miecznikowski of the Chemistry and Biochemistry department presented “O True Apothecary: A Forensic and Toxilogical Perspective on Romeo and Juliet.” The talk focused on the kinds of poisons that might have been common during Shakespeare’s time. What kind of poisons would Shakespeare have been familiar with? Plenty, as it turns out.

“During the time of the 16th and 17th century, people had started to become more scientific about plant medicines,” said Dr. Harper-Leatherman. Scientific handbooks, called “herbals,” professed to describe which kind of plants produced which effects. It is likely that Shakespeare was familiar with these books because he mentions them throughout his works.

Scholars believe the sedating poison given to Juliet may have been mandrake, henbane, or belladonna. All these plants include the chemicals hyoscine and atropine, which produce sedating effects. Mandrake, in particular, was used as an anesthetic in Shakespeare’s time, although it also helped with muscle spasms and asthma.

“The problem,” Dr. Harper-Leatherman said, “is if you take too much of it, it can cause delusions, hallucinations, and death. People knew that during (Shakespeare’s) time, too.”

Dr. Harper-Leatherman’s inkling is that Juliet likely ingested belladonna, which in one 16th-century herbal is said to “bringeth such as have eaten thereof into a dead sleep wherein many have died.”

Though the fate that befalls Romeo – who takes a poison and dies immediately – was trickier to diagnose, Drs. Miecznikowski and Harper-Leatherman point to aconitum napellus (monkshood), one of the deadliest plants known to man. Romeo goes quickly – as would anyone who ingests monkshood.

In March, Drs. Anibal Torres Bernal from the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT), along with Diana Mille, Director of the Thomas J. Walsh Art Gallery and a graduate of the MFT program, presented “Romeo and Juliet – A Conversation in Communication from a Systemic Perspective,” which looked at the play from the standpoint of common family dysfunctions.

Dr. Torres Bernal said the world of the play, like the world of many families, contains “toxic secrets.”

“Secrets stem out of fear that if this information is disclosed something terrible will happen,” said Dr. Torres Bernal. “Many times (when a family contains a secret) it is actually more harmful. Secrets have a very perverse way of taking control of families. The secret organizes how people interact with each other because all the ways we are interacting have to do with keeping the secret.”