Find fair Verona in New Haven

While most students were schlepping boxes or navigating online course evaluations this past week, two Yalies were making wanton promises of eternal love and ingesting vials of poison.

Natalia Duncan ’06 and Alex Organ DRA ’06, who play the titular roles in the Elm Shakespeare Company’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” have been in New Haven working on the play since early July. The romantic tale marks the 10th annual offering of the company’s Shakespeare in the Park series.

Directed by James Andreassi, the show premiered at the Guilford Green and is currently at New Haven’s Edgerton Park, where it will run until September 4. Because the show boasts a $200,000 budget and corporate sponsorship, it looks and feels more like an indoor traditional theatre production and not merely a simple outdoor show.

Though a garish hot dog cart parked just outside the seating area seriously challenges the Elizabethan feel of Edgerton Park, the crushed velvet finery and flowing tunics that comprise the players’ costumes help establish a feeling of authenticity. The set’s main component, an impressive two-story facade of the Capulet manse, furthers the transformation of modest New Haven into fair Verona.

“Outdoor theatre poses its own set of problems,” Duncan said. “But Shakespeare plays — and particularly our production — are well-suited [to it] because a lot of scenes were written to take place outdoors anyway.”

The staging posed special difficulties for the cast. Organ described the body microphones the actors wear as “intrusive” and noted that the production schedule is at the whim of the elements.

“We had to stop the show in the middle one night, right after Tybalt and Mercutio got killed, because of rain,” Organ said. “That was a drag.”

The audience’s reactions and level of comfort are dictated by the surroundings as well, Organ said. On a Tuesday night performance attended by this reviewer, some audience members’ attention spans were tested by libations imported from home and the temptation to lie, rather than sit on, blankets brought for protection against grass stains.

Despite the casual audience atmosphere, the production is quite traditional. Though lines were pruned from the play to keep it to a short 120 minutes and therefore more palatable to families and their children, the tragic essence and touching romance of the adolescent protagonists remains intact.

“The biggest thing we decided as a cast was to keep Juliet young. She’s written as a 13-year-old,” Duncan said. “Romeo is meant to be a little older, but the key was to keep the idea of youth present.”

The production is not all fated tragedy and woeful iambic pentameter, though. Mercutio, for example, includes a few anachronisms and adds audience interaction to the script; his references to modern personalities and use of slang garner laughs from the audience. And though the actor’s insinuation of Mercutio’s homosexuality throughout the play is indeed amusing, the heavy-handed employment of a lisp and ad-libbed lines about soft fabrics sometimes detracts from the serious nature of scenes.

Edgerton Park, which is located past East Rock off Whitney Avenue, is further from campus than many students might normally venture, but Duncan said Yale students have attended nearly every performance. The makeup of an audience, she said, noticeably alters reactions to certain lines in the play.

“A lot of times, this is the only theater people see because it’s so family-friendly and convenient,” Organ said. “It’s rewarding to get to play to audiences that aren’t seasoned theatergoers. For some, especially with Shakespeare, it’s their first exposure.”

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