As she dove deep into the text of "Romeo and Juliet," this year's Bard in the Quad production at Oregon State University, director Elizabeth Helman kept noticing something maybe a little unexpected about the play — well, at least, the first half of the play.
"It's really funny," she said. "It starts as a comedy and then things go terribly, terribly wrong."
So for her production, which opens tonight at the campus' Memorial Quad, Helman has done what she can to showcase the bright, dazzling humor of the show's first half — without diminishing the tragedy of its finale.
In that light, it made sense for Helman to set the show in the midst of the 1920s Jazz Age, with "all that youthful energy and no one thinking of consequences. Something about it just made sense."
So the show features dance numbers and jazz music throughout, and Helman has assigned standards to many of her actors. For example, early on, Juliet (Genesis Hansen) sings "Stormy Weather," and the tune is meant in some ways to reflect the character's mental state.
Despite the flash of its Jazz Age setting, though, "Romeo and Juliet" hits on some universal themes that are just as potent as they were when Shakespeare, at the time just around 30, wrote the play in the mid-1590s: "Being young is universal," Helman said. "Tension between parents and children is universal. ... Trying to figure out who you are, which I think is a very big part of what this play is about, is universal."
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Any production of "Romeo and Juliet" rises or falls on one factor, she said: "The most important thing about this play, no matter what, is that the audience has to be rooting for Romeo and Juliet. If your Romeo and Juliet don't have chemistry, then forget it."
So, Helman said, she faced a tough choice before selecting Hansen and Thomas R. McKean as the young lovers. It helped, she said, that both Hansen and McKean are veterans of Bard in the Quad productions, and "they played off each other very well in auditions."
Another key to this production, Helman said: Ted DeChatelet, a certified fight instructor from Western Oregon University, has choreographed the play's fight scenes, ranging from all-out brawls between the feuding Montague and Capulet families to a fast and brutal showdown between Romeo and Paris near the play's end.
But, finally, Helman said, the play is about the joy and heartbreak of young love. "I think audiences will be just as charmed with Romeo and Juliet as they are with each other."
For her part, Helman is pleased to be able to return these annual productions to the north side of the Memorial Union; construction work on the building forced last year's show, "The Tempest," into the middle of the Quad.
"We are, thankfully, back on the steps (of the Memorial Union), and it's wonderful," Helman said.