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.

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