The partnership between The Mechanical Theater and Historic Strawberry Mansion continues in June with a new site-specific production of ROMEO AND JULIET. Adapted and directed by Eric Singel, the condensed version features three emerging young actors (Clay Westman, Brianna Lopez, and Nico Suave) who portray the iconic star-crossed lovers and an abridged roster of supporting characters in Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy.
During the rehearsal process, the director, cast, and Mechanical’s artistic director Loretta Vasile sat down with Phindie for an animated discussion of the company’s original take on the story and its mission of attracting cross-over audiences to Philadelphia’s historic properties through its on-site performances of the classics.
PHINDIE: Tell us about your approach in adapting Shakespeare’s multi-character script to a play for three actors.
ERIC SINGEL: This is my third show in a three-actor format, and I love it! A great deal was cut, but there’s very little invented text; it’s almost all Shakespeare, condensed to a running time of between 75 and 90 minutes. It’s a challenge, but in this text it’s very clear, since most of the main themes are in two- or three-person scenes, if you get rid of the extraneous characters. Brianna plays only Juliet, Clay plays both Romeo and Lady Capulet—he turns his back and instantly becomes the other character—and . . .
NICO SUAVE: . . . and I play everyone else—the Nurse, Friar Lawrence, Tybalt, Mercutio, the Narrator. I talk to myself and I kill myself!
CLAY WESTMAN: What I like about this casting is how I have become more aware of how the characters relate to each other, and how others relate to them. It calls into question a lot about inter-relationships and dynamics between family and friends, and also enemies. It’s more immediate with just three actors assuming all of the personalities and understanding all of their perspectives. It was very useful for me to see, and then to portray, how differently Romeo interacts with Juliet than her mother does, though both love her.
LORETTA VASILE: Even if you cut it down, you still get the central human story.
PHINDIE: How does staging it at Historic Strawberry Mansion, built in 1789, affect the production in terms of the design?
ES: I wanted to do something on the veranda as soon as I saw it.
LV: It’s the only outdoor space we’ve ever had with a roof, so the audience doesn’t have to worry about the weather and we won’t have to schedule rain dates. The flowers are in bloom, so it adds to the beauty of the story and the mood of romance.
ES: Yes, there’s a retractable roof, so even though it’s outdoors, the setting of both the action and the seating on the back veranda will make it very intimate; you’ll really get to know the people in Shakespeare’s story. The staging is close and personal, and it will all be on one level–the same level with the audience–even the balcony scene.
CW: You’ll be taken to the balcony and to the other locales through the magic of theater . . .
LV: . . . and a couple of sheets! We can gloss over much of the scenic design with a site-specific production at an 18th-century mansion. You don’t need any more than the beautiful historic architecture and grounds.
ES: Costumes will be in keeping with the outdoors, and with the historic tone. The cast will be in simple tunics that will not be lavish, but will evoke the past; they’re not just wearing tee-shirts, jeans, and sneakers! The sound is natural, no speakers or mics; they’re not necessary, since the veranda is so intimate. We’ll do our own live sound effects, there aren’t any pre-recorded ones; the actors create all of the sounds and noises themselves.
CW: I’m writing original music with a historical flavor that will evoke the romantic theme. I’ll play guitar for the pre-show seating, and the production will include live guitar performances in a few of the scenes.
LV: As far as the lighting goes, the run will be during the brightest days of the year. We begin at 7:00, so it will still be light, but we’ll also have the setting sun as part of the show.
ES: The terrace faces the sunset, so the actors will be illuminated. The audiences will have their backs to the sun, facing the house, but will be encompassed by the changing light and growing darkness. That will be reflected in the production. There will be humor at the start, it will be very light, with fun and shtick up front. Then it goes dark, when Romeo kills Tybalt.
CW: The best way to make someone cry is to make them laugh first. It’s all in the contrast of emotions.
LV: I agree. The theme of ROMEO AND JULIET is very similar to the comedy we did outdoors last year, MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, in the garden behind the Powel House. It’s all young and romantic and fun—until it falls apart and turns tragic. There’s a thin line between the two, and laughter can quickly turn to tears with one rash action or bad decision.
PHINDIE: How was the show cast? Were you looking specifically for young actors and recent college graduates who aren’t too many years removed from the teenage protagonists?
LV: Clay came in to audition for our upcoming production of RICHARD III, which we’ll perform at Laurel Hill Cemetery, July 15-23, and did a Romeo monologue for it.
CW: This will be my second time playing Romeo, I had already done the part, not long ago, in a school production.
LV: After seeing Clay, Josh [Hitchens, who will direct RICHARD III] and I emailed Eric and said, “We found your Romeo!” We met Brianna through Bistro Romano Mystery Theatre; all three of our actors appear in the dinner theater murder mystery, though I had also seen Nico perform elsewhere.
ES: Since they’ve all worked together, it makes it a little easier. There’s no learning curve here, we can all just jump right in and do the work. And yes, I wanted young actors; I would never cast a 40-year-old in a teenage role! That would be very obvious miscasting.
PHINDIE: How do you see your characters, and what qualities do you relate to in them?
BRIANNA LOPEZ: I am trying to approach Juliet from a younger viewpoint, to capture her youth, but also her bravery. She can be a savvy fourteen-year-old, and she shows some wisdom beyond her years–though ultimately her plan goes wrong. But I think there was real thought and bravery in defying her family, and it was based on her true love for Romeo, not just on the impetuous decisions and reckless urgency of youth. I’ve never done Shakespeare before, and the language was difficult at first, so I did a lot of preparation for this in terms of reading synopses and analyses, and taking notes, then writing into the text the modern way of saying it. After doing that, now the text and language make sense, it doesn’t seem so foreign to me because I understand Juliet’s thoughts and emotions, I’m not just reciting lines.
CW: I’ve never liked to diminish their deaths, and to dismiss them as just youthful passion and lack of control, because their families’ feud is so engrained in their lives. For them, death is the only way out of the constant cycle of hatred; they’re victims of it. From an outside perspective, they could just run away, but they don’t see it that way, because all they’ve seen in their young lives is death and hating. That’s where the heightened emotion comes from, not from being young and rash.
NS: It’s all about the EMO.
ES: Yes, let’s call him “Ro-emo”!
LV: Since we chose this play for our production, it’s the first time I’ve looked at it in a long time, as an adult. And I believe in the context of the story that they do have to die, because everything around them is so intense. It’s not just the young characters, but also the adults who are behaving with such emotion, perpetuating the hatred, feuding, and killing.
ES: My approach to the story is with honesty: let’s be telling the truth. How does somebody do this? That’s what I want to examine. I saw there’s a new TV series coming up on ABC for the 2016-17 season called “Still Star-Crossed” [based on the 2013 book of the same name by Melinda Taub], a sequel to ROMEO AND JULIET, following the families after their deaths. In my mind, after a respectful period of mourning and peace, they’ll just revert back to the same old feud. That seems to be human nature, not to let go of the hatred—we see it all the time on the news and throughout history–and the inescapability of it seems to be what drives Romeo and Juliet to do what they did.
Thanks to all of you for sharing your thoughts on the play and giving us some insight into your upcoming production!
[Historic Strawberry Mansion, 2450 Strawberry Mansion Dr.] June 3-5 and 10-12, 2016; TheMechanicalTheater.weebly.com.