Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
William Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Romeo and Juliet,” is perhaps the most familiar love story of all time. The challenge, therefore, in any production of the play is to revivify, to infuse it with the life, love, laughter, and loss that set it apart from the first. The production in the Frear meets this challenge head on, simultaneously making you aware of the play’s proximity to death and breathing it back to life.
The honors directing thesis of Jackie Avitabile ’09, the production stays true to her idea “to start in the world of the dead and reanimate this well-known story through living characters.” She explains in an online interview with the Gazette that “What we’re left to consider is what life means when death is a certainty.”
The space of the Frear reflects this vision, developing an eerie, cellar-like atmosphere. Sound under the design of Nick Kourtides and lighting under the design of Cara Arcuni ’09 (“Romeo and Juliet” is Arcuni’s honors lighting design thesis), work well together in giving the space a dank, incandescent atmosphere. Arcuni credits a photograph “of the circus maximus at night, filled with glowing orbs that are sitting on the ground and [the] shadows of people walking around them” as strongly informing her vision of the lighting design.
Both Avitabile and Arcuni cite the majority of their theatrical experience as being actresses and perhaps as a consequence many of the decisions made in design and direction attend to a careful support of the cast and their portrayals. Under Avitabile’s direction, the cast pushes the emotional energy of their performance and often surprises the audience with unexpected but graceful choreography.
Avitabile’s casting choices are especially successful examples of her attention to the actors: “It was always my intention to do [“Romeo and Juliet”] with a small cast and have everyone playing multiple roles to emphasize the theatricality of this undertaking and the switch between actor and character, and also complicate the relationships in the play with surprising double-casting choices.”
Her casting creates elegant pairings that demonstrate a thoughtful interpretation of Shakespeare’s original text and language. The casting also allows each actor to explore and strongly articulate their role, with often virtuosic effect.
Judy Browngoehl, ’09, who plays Friar Laurence among others, speaks about working with the cast and crew, “It was a dream team to work with, for me. Jackie is a wonderful, talented, and supportive director who was always eager and willing to try new things. The cast is amazing: everyone is deeply committed to this show, and so much fun to work with. The design and production team has also put in endless hours, and I think everyone’s hard work is going to pay off.”
She describes the challenge to the actor of working with “Romeo and Juliet:” “Everyone knows the tragic ending of Romeo & Juliet, but the characters don’t realize this is going to happen. They really are trying to work things out, and believe they can solve each problem they are faced with, even as they get worse and worse.”
It is perhaps a testament to exactly this that the play succeeds most dramatically in its bringing the audience through the plot with the flickering hope that some alternative might in fact be found, though the familiar tale is fated. “Romeo and Juliet” is being performed in the Frear Ensemble Theater” on Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm.