GPAC’s Version of Romeo and Juliet: Too Black and White?
Photo by Dr. James Bass
The air was smoky. The haze created a mysterious atmosphere, full of suspense, while the audience members took their seats. The stage was set with a large white cross in the center, its outline lit with red lights.
On the left was a window dressing with two 1950-style chairs that flank a dry bar—all black. On the right was a mirror image with one important difference—all white. Everything on stage portrayed powerful foreboding images of division and death.
Despite the initial dramatic feel, the monochromatic production itself fell flat at times after too many dirty jokes and lack of scene changes made the “two [and a half] hour traffic of our stage”, as described by the Chourus (Thomas Heffernan), drag on.
The play also boasted a 1950s motif that was wobbly from the start, only solidified by the costumes and during the masquerade scene when a swing dance and a jazz band were incorporated.
Romeo and Juliet was “GPAC’s first ever artist-in-residence program, utilizing professional actors alongside UNCP students, faculty and staff,” according to the show’s handbill.
The production was also a collaboration of UNCP’s music, art and theater department. The art department worked with the sets and props, and the music department’s band was featured in the production during the iconic masquerade.
Caleb Sasser, a well-known singer at UNCP, performed a jazz number during the masquerade as well. The mass communication department filmed the show with the possibility of broadcasting it on UNCP’s television station, according to Dr. James Bass, executive director of GPAC.
Set in the ‘50s, the play’s aim was to create a retelling that was understandable for the audience. However, true to Shakespeare fashion, there were several lengthy monologues that were difficult to follow.
While the actors did a great job using their body language and tone to help the audience better follow what was happening, at times it became difficult. For instance, Mercutio (Robbie Allen) explained a dream he had to Romeo (Joey Santia) before they snuck into the Capulet’s party.
Because Mercutio sat still at times, it made it hard to understand that he was telling Romeo that dreams mean nothing and are of little consequence.
Another thing true to Shakespeare fashion was a plethora of innuendos. One scene had Benvolio (Nichalus Williams) pair the line, “A right fair mark, fair coz, is soonest hit,” with a strategic pelvic thrust.
Another was when Mercutio said to Romeo, “Borrow Cupid’s wings and soar [hand raises in front of pants] with them above a common bound.”
While the cheeky jokes were intended to be comedic, some didn’t go over well with the audience. About half of the audience laughed the first couple of times, but farther into the production, very few people laughed when the jokes just kept coming.
The use of black and white to separate the two houses was carried throughout the play. The Montague house wore all black, while the Capulets wore only white.
There were two exceptions. When Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio disguised themselves for the Capulet’s masquerade, they each wore white masks and white jackets over their black suits.
“Neutral” characters were the other exception because they wore grey throughout the play. These characters included The Princess of Verona (Natalie Graham), who wanted peace at all costs; Friar Lawrence (Calen Kniep), who agreed to wed Romeo and Juliet to join the families; and the Chorus, who narrated the story.
Where the performance really excelled was the masquerade ball hosted by the Capulets. It exuded the 1950s with beautiful costumes, dancing and the jazz band.
The music department’s band, also dressed in ‘50s garb, played iconic swing dance music. They slowed it down to smooth jazz while Caleb Sasser accompanied on the microphone. Juliet (Lindsay Pearce) took over the mic at her father’s insistence and performed for the party.
Romeo locks eyes with Juliet, and that began the series of events that leads the two “star-crossed lovers” to take their life.
The simplistic stage was not necessarily the best choice. The setting never changed, only adding a stool when Friar Lawrence came on to stage, or a bed when Romeo and Juliet woke up in bed together.
The scenes were in the middle of the stage or to the far right where the Capulet’s “home” was set up. The far left that symbolized the Montague’s home, using the color black, was never used.
Every scene took place in the center or right of the stage, with the exception of the apothecary scene where Romeo buys his poison; that was on the far left at the off-stage door, and the scene with Friar Lawrence speaking to Friar John (Thomas Heffernan) about the letter he sent Romeo. That was on the far right at the other off-stage door.
Despite the fact that this production of Romeo and Juliet had it’s hiccups, this production had something incredibly unique that no other have had—department collaboration. The masquerade scene was incredible in its own right.
The first “artist-in-residence” production begins a new era of collaboration for the upcoming 2017-2018 season.
That’s reason enough for students to come out to attend future GPAC events.