“Romeo and Juliet” explores a range of storytelling styles

by Kourtney Kawano | 3/1/15 6:11pm

With their final performance yesterday afternoon, the cast and production crew of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” bid a fond farewell and parted with “sweet sorrow” after several months of preparation and presenting their visually-stirring modern adaptation over the past two weekends.

While many versions of the play have been performed in the past — both on the stage and on the screen — theater professor and director Peter Hackett’s adaptation featured a new twist with a combination of recorded video footage, projected text and live onstage acting. To help bridge the gap between the modernity of this production and its traditional elements, the performance also utilized modern social media apps such as Instagram and Yik Yak to give another twist to the famous play.

The result of this mixture of cinema and theater was a presentation that gave the audiences the freedom to choose what they wanted to watch, whether it was the live acting by Reed Latrowski ’15 and Tess McGuinness ’18, who played Romeo and Juliet, respectively, their simultaneous behind-the-scenes interpretations and interviews regarding the historical and social contexts of the play that were projected above the stage or Shakespeare’s poetic lines of “Romeo and Juliet” itself.

The goal and challenge, Hackett said, was telling a familiar story in a way that will make an audience look at it with fresh eyes.

“There is no usual way a play is performed,” Hackett said. “This is especially true with Shakespeare, where directors often update the play, at the very least.”

Though Hackett has used this specific production’s script — which was originally commissioned for the San Diego California-Pacific International Exposition in 1936 — in his theater classes, he said he never directed this version of the production before.

Because of that, some of the challenges associated with the production, he said, were designing and incorporating the film sequences in the show and instructing the actors in stage combat, which he said is a very special skill.

Although the mixture of multimedia video and live acting may seem radically innovative to some audiences, Hackett and much of the theater department have had experience in working with productions that combine live video and on stage acting.

In November 2010, Hackett directed the Shakespeare play “Two Gentlemen of Verona” at the College and included scenes of film shot in advance.

“There was no live broadcast,” Hackett said. “In Romeo and Juliet, all the film used was shot in advance or was broadcasted live during the performances.”

Theater professor and the play’s lighting designer Dan Kotlowitz said that the current production is the first time the theater department has been so committed to using live video.

“There is a student who films the perspective from above the stage, and she is very much still a part of the play,” Kotlowitz said.

This inclusion of live broadcast, Kotlowitz said, created a sense of intimacy, especially in the play’s iconic balcony scene where a close-up of Juliet’s face is projected on to the main screen while Romeo watches her from below and on a small monitor in front of him.

“Audiences could step back and see the scenes from different sides,” Kotlowitz said. “I can see this approach being used more in our future productions.”

To challenge any possible preconceived notions of “Romeo and Juliet” and to get audiences to question why Shakespearemight have included certain scenes or dialogue in the play, the production also took an unconventional approach in its set design. Rather than setting the play in Verona or randomly placing characters in a high school or college setting, this adaptation takes place in a rehearsal studio.

Visiting theater professor and the production’s set designer Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili said that while the set designs are never the same for any shows, this particular set was very different than any of the other sets he has designed at Dartmouth. Alexi-Meskhiskvili and Hackett worked closely together to create the set design, which features video cameras and monitors for the film aspect of the production as well as scattered tables and costumes for the onstage acting portion, Alexi-Meskhiskvili said.

The stage managers, Kotlowitz said, also purposefully left “junk” on the stage to give the audience an in-depth look at the performance from the crew’s point of view, because the managers gave directions to the actors while onstage during the performance.

Despite the difficulty in creating an atmosphere that reflected the background of “Romeo and Juliet” with multimedia aspects, designing the set around the inclusion of video, Alexi-Meskhishvili said, was not a problem.

The use of live video, Kotlowitz said, presented a challenge in figuring out the balance for lighting during the production.

“The lighting for the video and onstage are very different,” Kotlowitz said. “We needed to find a balance for the different views of the live-broadcast video.”

Though the curtain for the winter MainStage’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” has just closed, the theater department is already preparing for its next series of productions.

In the spring, the department will be presenting the musical “Merrily We Roll Along” as a part of an honors project with Dartmouth undergraduates spearheading the performance along with other student productions.