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Wherefore Art Thou, O Modern Romeo and Juliet?

In less then four days of real time and about three hours of stage time, two young people manage to fall in love at first sight, sleep with each other, cause murderous mayhem among their friends and relatives, run away from home, hastily marry in a questionable ceremony, consume drugs supplied by a shady religious guru, break their parents’ hearts, and ultimately do away with themselves.

Although it sounds like 21st-century Quentin Tarantino, it is, in fact, 16th-century Shakespeare.

Romeo and Juliet opened in late October and featured a cast of 24 student actors—along with Jerry Harp, assistant professor with term of English, who played the Friar. The contemporary retelling, directed by Associate Professor of Theatre Stepan Simek, was designed to explore the societal ills that led to the protagonists’ untimely demise.

Simek and three of the student actors— Tessa Siegel CAS ’11, Benvolio; Warren Kluber CAS ’11, Mercutio; and Matthew Tratos CAS ’14, Tybalt— discuss their vision of the play with the Chronicle.

As actors who have grown up in the world of reality TV and the Internet, how do you relate to this story from more than four centuries ago?

Warren Kluber: Even if you’ve never read or seen Romeo and Juliet, you’ve definitely encountered dozens of versions of the same basic story in movies, TV, and books. It feels very familiar. Certainly the language is different, but the things the characters want and feel are all things people still want and feel today.

Matthew Tratos: At first, I had some difficulty connecting with my character of Tybalt. However, Stepan helped me come to terms with him. He is really a victim of his birthplace, born into a situation that was already rich with hate. All he truly wants is to be accepted and respected by his uncle and his peers. I think his constant struggle to succeed and be accepted is understood by most teens.

Romeo and Juliet is a well-known play. Why did you choose it, and how did you put your own twist on it?

Stepan Simek: There were so many questions, and they all called for answers. How can I make the familiar unfamiliar? How can I reveal things that may have been overlooked? How do I make the play thrilling, even though everybody knows that Romeo and Juliet die in the end? How do we perform the play so that it shows us what it means to be human today, yesterday, and tomorrow?

As a director, one wants questions to work with. It was the initial lack of answers about this famous play that drew me to it.

How has the concept of love changed or stayed the same since Romeo and Juliet was written?

Tessa Siegel: I think people are more practical about the concept of true love now than in Elizabethan times. It’s hard for modern viewers to buy into this ideal of falling so deeply in love at first sight that committing suicide is the only solution to a lover’s death. In our production, we focused on the idea of societal pressure as a driving factor to the ending, rather than some glorified, magical love that occurs between our teen protagonists.

Kluber: I don’t really feel the characters in the play think of love any differently than people do today. People might not get married at age 14 anymore, but they do still fall in love for the first time at that age. Marrying for love then wasn’t as common as it is now, but Shakespeare shows that people felt love and felt hatred in the same way they do today.

Much of the tragedy within Romeo and Juliet hinges on miscommunication. If Romeo and Juliet had had today’s smart phones and social media tools, could the story have still gone awry?

Tratos: Well, first of all, there are a lot of different variables to take into account here. How much time does Juliet have to tell Romeo of her plan? Is there a computer nearby? What phone does she have? Does it have Internet? Can she quickly send Romeo a text or a Facebook message saying “Ttly trixed par3nts lolz. Not actly ded. No wrries. C U in a few. <3 4ever.” There is always a way for something to not go according to plan.

Siegel: Secrets have become incredibly hard to keep in the digital age. I’m sure that someone would read Romeo’s love letter/e-mail to Juliet and the two of them would be in terrible trouble. Maybe Romeo lost his cell charger. The point is, modern technology certainly does not shatter the believability of the story.

Do you think the concept of entertainment has changed since Shakespeare’s time?

Simek: We know a lot about Shakespeare’s audiences, and we have plenty of historical documents about the social, economic, and moral environment in which the plays were originally produced. But when it comes down to it, his audiences expected to be entertained. One day, they may have been watching a bloody bear baiting; the next day, they may have seen Hamlet in the afternoon and attended a public beheading in the evening. In that, I believe they were no different from an average American, or German, or Japanese consumer of TV and movie entertainment. On any given day, we may enjoy a bloodbath like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, be amazed at the beauty of a sprawling historical epic from Merchant Ivory, cherish the psychological depth of an installment of Six Feet Under, and laugh uncontrollably at the latest Judd Apatow comedy.

Apart from the entertainment delivery technologies (theatres and public squares versus TVs and laptops), nothing has really changed as far as I’m concerned.

What made this production unique?

Tratos: Instead of focusing on the power of love, and what lengths people will go to for love, Stepan instilled a greater message about society. Often the double suicide of Romeo and Juliet is looked upon as beautiful. But what is beautiful about two young people killing themselves? Their deaths are caused by the fact that two families can’t reconcile their differences. It is not the love between Romeo and Juliet that results in their deaths, but the lack of love in the society in which they live.

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