Monday, January 27, 2014

Romeo and Juliet Live and In Person

Why the Bard Still Matters (and is more fun than you might guess)

At Antelope Valley College, we offer a number of ways to appreciate live theatre, from student-written one-acts on up to the Great Man himself, Billy Shakespeare.

It's easy to dismiss great plays as being "old" or "dull" or "not worth the bother," since too often, especially in high school, that is exactly how they were presented. We might think of Elizabethan performances as being stuffy affairs, very serious and probably boring. We expect to have to put our necks in something starched and stiff and scratchy, and to be made miserable for one to five hours.

The truth is, Shakespeare didn't get paid unless people came to see the plays, and up to 7,000 people a week were sneaking off during working hours, paying a boatman a penny to cross the Thames over to the red light district on the South Bank, and indulging themselves in a few hours of bloodshed and mayhem. Shakespeare gave audiences what they wanted, then and now --- if you can think about all the sex, violence, and transgression in a tv series like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, you're getting closer to what Shakespeare gave his audiences then . . . and still gives them, now.

Of course there are moments of great poetry, soaring language, and dazzling insight, as well. And let us not forget the fight scenes: people went to his plays in order to see a great sword fight, or maybe an off-stage beheading. We still covet all of this today; the Godfather movie triology is Shakespearean in its violence, drama, and story arc. I quote from poet, critic, and sometimes Fascist nutcase Ezra Pound, one of the few rivals Shakespeare ever had for having perfect pitch when it comes to the nuances of English. Pound in The ABC of Reading said

Shakespeare made sixteenth-century plays out of fifteenth-century Italian news. The Italian stage had given [ the world ] the commedia dell’ arte, and Italian oratory, law court stuff, the example of ornate speeches. Shakespeare already was looking back to Europe from the outside.

We soon will have a chance to hear and see a local version of the classic and often misunderstood early Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet. Dr. Rachel Jennings of Language Arts is involved in the presentation, and she made time between rehearsals for an interview.

Question: Many people have been mildly traumatized by Shakespeare in the past and find the language inert, even painful. What would you tell them, to get them to give the play a second chance?

Answer: Well, please come and see our performance. And if you are inclined, do some homework beforehand. There are several barriers to our appreciation of Shakespeare’s language. First, there’s a lot of it. Elizabethans would say they were going to hear a play, not to see it. So how do we, in our visually-oriented culture, step into their shoes? One suggestion I make to my students is to listen to an audio version while reading a play. (I recommend The Arkangel series).

Another tip is to read a Manga version --- there are at least two of Romeo and Juliet which are quite good. Though abridged, they use the original language, and the reader has the advantage of seeing the action while reading the words at his or her own pace. Another barrier is the impression many have that Shakespeare’s language is always posh or pompous. This is a fallacy. Romeo and Juliet includes everything from complex heightened rhyming verse, to simple bawdy jokes, to grief-stricken meaningless babble. Something else we need to know about, as Norrie Epstein points out (in The Friendly Shakespeare), is the Elizabethan pastime of quibbling, or battle-of-wits word play. 

Original audiences would have relished scenes such as the opening one of Romeo and Juliet in which two servants pun on “colliers,” “choler,” and “collar.”  Modern audiences, unfortunately, are unlikely to realize the characters are discussing coal bearers, a bodily fluid that causes ill temper, and being hanged. That’s another barrier --- Shakespeare’s plays are packed with jokes we don’t understand, including some racy ones. If you want tips on understanding a text like this, please listen to my free podcast on Shakespeare’s language available via iTunes and the IMC. This podcast is on how to approach Shakespeare’s language, including simple ways to notice whether it’s in prose or verse, is the verse rhymed or unrhymed, is it in ordinary or heightened language, does it use repetition, and so on.

In short, to appreciate Shakespeare, you need to be prepared to put in a bit of work. It pays off though. Recent research in the U.K. demonstrates that reading Shakespeare stimulates the brain. And he provides us with a word-hoard for life. Next time you want to insult someone, wouldn’t it be more fun to yell, “Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,” instead of the usual over-worn modern expletives?

On a more serious level, Shakespeare helps us at momentous times in our lives. Students often report to me that his sonnets, for example, help them think through relationship issues. And I asked my cousin to read sonnet 18 at my mother’s funeral. So often in life we say we don’t have the words to express our feelings or think through a problem. Shakespeare has the words.

Question: How has being an actor as well as an academic changed how you see R & J?

Answer: The advantage of being an academic is that I have contextual knowledge. (For example, I can explain how the fire element affects Tybalt). 

The advantage of being an actor is seeing the play through the eyes of one character. After rehearsing the nurse for seven months, I understand in-depth how her lines work, and I’m more amazed by Shakespeare’s brilliance. But I’ve also noticed some mistakes, which have made him more human to me (as opposed to a literary demigod). An academic may privilege a perspective because it fits a critical approach (such as gender theory), but (as our director Rose Story says) an actor should choose the most dramatic interpretation. For example, I used to think that the nurse is upset by Juliet’s arranged marriage to Paris, but I now realize the play works best if the nurse favors the marriage and Juliet feels betrayed. Acting also takes more of a toll than being an academic --- I have permanent sore eyes because I cry in two scenes every rehearsal.

Question: There are many film versions of R & J. Do you have a personal preference, and if so, why?

Answer: I love Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, especially the settings. He achieves a perfect uneasy mix of comedy and violence in the opening gunfight at the gas station, for example. And the elevator for Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss is intimate while foreshadowing the fact their time together will be short. The larger-than-life minor characters, such as drag-queen-Mercutio, are inspired. And I find it apt that the first half of the movie is often frenetically paced, like the end of a Benny Hill episode, whereas the second half (after Mercutio’s death) is more naturalistic. This fits the fact that the play transitions, at the mid-point, from comedy to tragedy. Mostly I like it because it takes risks.

Question: What is one aspect of the play that most people don’t expect or perhaps misunderstand?

Answer: “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” is popularly believed today to mean “Where are you, Romeo?” But it means “Why are you Romeo --- why were you born the son of my family's enemy?” Before they saw the play, Elizabethan audiences knew the story as a warning to children to obey their parents. So they would have been very surprised to see how Shakespeare turned it around to blame the parents and to celebrate risking all for love. The Friar warns Romeo that “violent delights have violent ends” and that he should “love moderately.” But who wants that?

Last question: What are the performance dates and how can the community members get tickets?

Answer: Romeo and Juliet, presented by It’s Only Tuesday Productions, will be performed at the Arbor Court Community Theater, 858 W. Jackman, Lancaster, on three weekends from January 31 to February 16. Three of the roles (Romeo, Juliet, and the Nurse) are double-cast. I am in the shows on February 1, 14, 15, and 16. Friday and Saturday performances begin at 8pm. The Sunday performance is at 3pm. You can purchase tickets by calling 661 726 9355, or at the theater one hour prior to each show. There’s a Valentine’s Day special offer. For full details, visit

Hood's updated notes: the Theatre can be a bit tricky to find: it faces an inside courtyard, nearest a parking garage. You can't see it from the street. There's one small sign on the street, and when you see it, pull into either side of a loop parking route. The theatre itself has one sign (high up on the facade); it's about half way along a gallery of doorways, in between the parking access on either side and facing the parking lot, not the street. After the performance, you will have a chance to meet the actors. Run time nears three and a half hours, with a 10 minute intermission.


The AVC blog is curated by Charles Hood and he can be reached at chood@avc. It does not represent the official position (or dramatic tastes) of the Board of Trustees or the District as a whole. See you at the show!

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