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ROMEO/JULIET TO BE PERFORMED AT BARD COLLEGE ON NOVEMBER 23 Original production based on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet features actors Karen Cooke, Chris Karczmar, Nicole Quinn, Jason Downs, and Sophia Raab
Emily M. Darrow
ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y.—On Sunday, November 23, Romeo/Juliet, a shorter version of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Romeo and Juliet, will be performed at Bard College. Performances will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Olin Hall. General admission is $10 (free for Bard students with identification).
The program is the brainchild of director Shelley Wyant, visiting assistant professor of theater at Bard College. Five actors—drawn from Actors and Writers, a professional readers theater based in Olivebridge, New York—will perform Romeo/Juliet in just over an hour. The cast includes Jason Downs (Hairspray and Clara’s Heart) and Sophia Raab (from the television series Law & Order) as the star-crossed lovers, as well as Karen Cooke, Chris Karczmar, and Nicole Quinn.
The production was initially conceived as an arts in education project for Red Hook High School students, through an Arts in Education grant from the Dutchess County Arts Council. Ninth-graders will study the play in their English classes, and Bard students from Wyant’s Arts in Education course will run teaching workshops before and after the performances. "Our goal is to bring a theatrical component to what might otherwise be a tedious exercise in footnote reading," explains Wyant. "By seeing these actors inhabit the play, Shakespeare’s language, which can seem inaccessible to modern readers, delivers emotions that teenagers recognize. It’s a play about love, hate, and loyalty. Passions run hot; everything’s life or death. It’s very hormonal; we’re making it work for the Nike generation." Last year more than 100 Red Hook students saw Romeo/Juliet; for many it was one of their first live drama experiences. This year students will attend a special school performance at Bard on Monday, November 24, at 10:00 a.m.
Wyant hopes that other area high schools that study the play will book future performances. She enlisted local playwright and Writers’ Guild Award winner Nina Shengold to edit the text. "It’s a humbling assignment to cut an hour out of one of the world’s greatest dramas," says Shengold. "But as I read and reread it, I realized that Shakespeare constructed his plays for an Elizabethan audience, who wandered in and talked during performances. So everything was said more than once. My job was to cut the play down to its bones." Shengold insisted that every line be Shakespeare’s, not hers. "I put the script under a magnifying glass, keeping a tight focus on the young lovers and their dilemma. At just under 70 minutes, it plays like a streak of theatrical lightning."
Shengold and Wyant chose the title Romeo/Juliet to indicate that this is Shakespeare’s text, just not all of it. The slash in the title is also a nod, they note, to the way the cast doubles, with each member of the ensemble tackling multiple roles. All three women play roles of both sexes, a neat reversal of the Elizabethan tradition of men playing female roles. The result is a vivid, fresh look at an age-old story of love spanning family divides, a theme that takes on resonance in these war-torn times.
In addition to the Bard production, Shelley Wyant’s other local productions have included Tree Tales at Opus 40, Ama at Kingston Point, and The Scottish Play at Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Kingston. Also working on Romeo/Juliet are scenic designer Carol Zaloom, lighting designer Rachel Saltzman, and multi-instrumentalist Thomas Workman.
The Empire State Partnership with Red Hook Central School, funded in part by the New York State Council on the Arts with additional support from the school district and Bard College, provides artists’ residencies for every classroom in grades K–5, special projects in the middle school, and programs in the high school. The schoolwide emphasis is on the performing arts. Bard also has a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts in support of architecture and design projects in the Red Hook and Rhinebeck schools, with a focus on the work of Frank Gehry.
This production has also received support from Voice and Vision, during the summer 2002 ENVISION residency at Bard College. For further information, call 914-706-2456.
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[Editor’s Note: For interviews, call Shelley Wyant at 845-338-4738 and Nina Shengold at 845-687-4375.]